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 kyoto

ju-ichi gatsu 12 (nov)
Zipping along
the countryside on the Shinkansen, or bullet train, it was a smooth and comfortable ride for a three-day weekend trip. Luckily I was on the right side of the train to catch my first glimpse of the unmistakable form of Mt. Fuji, a light dusting of snow on top, peaking out from behind a cloud as we rolled by a nearby city. I pointed and asked my seatmate, and he nodded and said "Fuji-san", the honorific added to the end denoting respect.

I chose my little ryokan, or Japanese style inn, for its proximity to areas full of notable temples in Kyoto and was pleased to find friendly, English speaking hosts. It had sparsely furnished rooms with tatami mats on the floor and a folded cushion or futon to be spread out for sleeping. Shoes were left by the front door. My room was near the western style kitchen, and I could see soft shadows on the other side of the paper walls when anyone walked by.

The distances on my maps proved further than they looked, as is often the case, so I walked and walked. But what more pleasant place to walk than the Path of Philosophy, a stone walkway following a gentle river, meandering past ancient temples and little shops along the eastern Higashiyama hills with the autumn leaves just starting to change? So many temples and so little time. I just sampled a few. At Ginkaku-ji, the extensive grounds were landscaped with moss, no grass, over hills and around ponds. The white raked sand garden included a round cone representing Fuji-san. There was an exhibition of painted wall screens in the main hall.

On Sunday morning I took a bus south and followed another path north through the city streets, starting at the orange pagoda at Kiyomizu-dera. Some of the sites were like little villages in themselves. Among the many buildings at this one, people lined up to drink from a waterfall with reputed healthy properties. The little brochure at Kodai-ji, noted for its paintings on black lacquered walls, explained more in English than most. I was delighted to learn the names of some of the beautiful little buildings at the site: a roofed bridge across a pond called the Moon Viewing Pavilion, and an inviting teahouse named the Cottage of Lingering Fragrance.

Gion, the downtown area, was packed with shoppers and tourists. I found some quiet streets in Ponto-cho, the adjoining historic neighborhood between tree-lined streets and a wide river basin. The geisha tradition is still alive in Kyoto. Although it's quite expensive to attend a gathering with geisha, the elaborately dressed women could be seen walking by, with tiny steps, in the central streets. I found a new teahouse that had just opened and enjoyed a tea ceremony for one, a rare treat. The ceremony is almost like a dance or a Tai-Chi exercise, minutely scripted, slowly and spiritually performed. The utensils and tea bowls are carefully chosen, simple but enchanting.

I took the bus across town Monday to see the much-photographed Kinkaku-ji golden pavilion, on the shores of a sizeable pond surrounded by moss gardens. But one of the most memorable surprises was at Ryoan-ji, where a rectangular raked sand garden contained fifteen artfully placed rocks. Dozens of people sat on a nearby viewing platform meditating, perhaps each finding a different message in the cryptic display.

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