Let me say upfront that this is one of the worst days of the trip for me. At least, it ended like that.
The day started out bright and sunny as we made our way via subway and bus to Daitokuji. This sprawling temple complex is in the northwestern corner of Kyoto, far from the main tourist drags of Higashiyama. We expected it to be quieter and so it was.
The first of the temples we visited was Korin-in, built between 1521 and 1533. It was quiet enough that we could enjoy the pared down karesansui, the dry landscape garden. We sat there for a while to reflect and listen to each other’s interpretation on what the design was all about. Someone said it looked like islands in the sea. I don’t know, but it was peaceful just sitting there and thinking for a bit. A nice comma in the midst of all the travel.
We chose Korin-in because I wanted the children to visit at least one Zen rock garden. After all, sand and stone are not exactly what comes to mind when the word garden is mentioned. Yet the starkness of the karesansui is precisely what lends it open to interpretation and in my opinion, any garden that engages the senses and pleases the eye would have done what it was designed to do. In the sand and the stones and their careful placement, one can find meaning if one pauses to think yet it can also be enjoyed for its clean, spare and austere lines.
The obvious choice for most visitors would be to visit the iconic but very crowded Ryoanji – also in the northwestern corner of Kyoto. But that would mean battling crowds again and from all the write-ups I’ve seen, this means the noise factor, the crowds etc will all detract from giving us the space and serenity needed to contemplate the garden. Hence we decided on Korin-in. Less well-known, quieter but also intriguing.
Korin-in also had a lovely mossy garden running along its sides. The reds, not at their peak, were not showy, but the pale green and orange-red blends to a very soothing combination.
From the gravel and rock Zen garden of Korin-in, we walked past various other temples and sub-temples. Daitokuji was large but most ofthe other temples, hidden behind ochre walls and bamboo, were closed to the public.
It didn’t really matter to us because we were heading, along with a growing steady stream of visitors, to the small but very pretty Koto-in.
Koto-in is built by a famous samurai known to be an expert in the tea ceremony. Sansai, who built this temple, is known to be one of the seven best pupils of the tea ceremony master Senno Rikyu. Well, I don’t know much about the tea ceremony, but the gardens are really pretty. We were not the only ones. The place was pretty crowded but it was not the sort of people crush you would otherwise get at Higashiyama. In certain parts of the garden, the trees and foliage are at full autumn bloom and the reds get so intense that they seem almost luminescent and unreal. You almost feel as if someone did a Photoshop on these colours.
We left Koto-in while Trin had a meltdown. While trying to calm her as we carried her down one of the lanes leaving the Daitokuji complex, a cheerful voice said: “Little baby, why are you crying?” You could hear the big smile in the voice as we turned to find a monk, quite colourfully and regally garbed, complete with headgear, beaming at Trin as he patted her on the head and went on his way.
It was a fleeting encounter but it left a nice warm feeling with us. Outside Daitokuji, we paused for a quick lunch. As usual, we raided the combini nearby. But this time, we ate at the bus-stop, attracting some curious stares from passengers in buses that stopped there. It was very cold!
Negotiating the city buses was not difficult. The bus guide was useful. We had no difficulty finding our way to our next stop – Kinkakuji – the golden pavilion. The crowd at the Kinkakuji bus-stop left us in doubt which was the right stop to alight at!
The approach to the temple was beautiful with maples and gingkoes in full spectacular bloom. It was crowded as befitted a star attraction like Kinkakuji, but because the grounds are big, we never felt hemmed in.
Kinkakuji literally glowed. Even as the skies were grey and a fine drizzle misted the air, the building seemed to have a luminous sheen to it. This is not original of course, but a reproduction, since the original was burned to the ground by a monk about 50 years ago. Still, the scene of Kinkakuji reflected in the still waters of the pond is a classic sight, eponymous with Japan.
From Kinkakuji, we debated where to go. It had started to rain, not drizzle. We decided to join the throngs at the bus-stop and head for Kyoto station for an early dinner, giving Ryoanji a miss, since it was already about 4pm and getting dark. As usual, the bus was PACKED. Even though it was supposed to be an ‘express’ bus, it still took us the better part of an hour to get to Kyoto station. We were standing all the way, with the exception of Trin who demanded to sit. She sat in the midst of a bunch of Vietnamese tourists who were generally friendly and curious about Trin and about where we came from. The group was bunch of guys and girls who looked like they were in their early 20s with the girls perching on the guys’ laps and encroaching into the next passenger’s personal space – mine and Trin’s. Okay, I was grumpy at having to stand, being jostled in what seemed like an unending journey. But they were friendly and they tried to be nice.
They offered her a mint and silently I was going: No-oooo!! I knew what would happen – Trin would happily accept, hold it in her mouth until the sweetness left and coolness started, whereupon she would shake her head and gesture to spit out. We were in a moving bus. It was so packed that I could barely get one hand into my bag. So NOT a good idea to give the baby mints! Resignedly, I could only watch as all that unfolded.
We reached Kyoto station with the windows fogged up from the breath and body heat of many packed into a tight, small space, like cattle. The bus driver was still unfailingly polite: Arigato gozaimasushita, he went, for every passenger. Owain asked why he had to keep saying that to everyone. I wondered if it was all on auto-pilot.
I was grumpy for another reason – I had lost my Lonely Planet and that was a library book. I racked my brains to recall where I had left it and the most logical place was a ledge on a bridge about 300m from Kyoto station where we had passed through earlier that morning. So I deposited KH and the kids at a ramen joint in the basement of Kyoto station and made my way, in the growing dark and in the rain, back to the bridge.
I didn’t find it.
The bridge handrail was too thin for anything to rest on, so I could not have left it there. Back I went to Kyoto station, asking at the bus counter where they helpfully called the Kitaoji bus terminal to check – nada. Resigned to its loss, I went back to the ramen joint where everyone had eaten. A bit tired of ramen, I had something else – Japanese pasta in cream sauce with mentaiko, seaweed and a raw yolk – yummy! Even more yummy was the fact that I savoured my alone-ness for that brief period, as if I was alone in Japan and enjoying a nice meal at a counter in a pasta joint. Pity it didn’t last long.
When I finished, we decided to head back to K’s House. We decided to take a bus which would bring us closest to K’s House. That would save us a walk in the rain and it would only take less than 10min by bus. Easy right? Wrong. I got the bus number right. But the direction was wrong. Instead of heading towards Shichijo-dori on the east, it turned west. Mind you, it was night by then and the rain was steadily falling. We tried counting the bus-stops and getting landmarks but in the dark and rain, everything looked different. We got off the bus and tried to figure out where we were and where the nearest bus-stop was. Logically, it was simple right? Just cross the road and take the next bus back to Kyoto station. Except that it wasn’t.
First, the bus-stop was not “just across the road”. It was down 150m, across a busy intersection and we didn’t know which direction it was – north or south. There was only ONE bus heading back to Kyoto station and that would take another 40min to arrive.
While we waited, huddled under a shopfront’s tiny awning – the bus-stop had no shelter – another bus trundled by. We saw the sign – Kyoto Station – and flagged it down. It was not crowded but only after getting on did we realise we could not use our Kyoto transport pass. By then, we didn’t really care – we were just tired after a whole day of walking, tired of being lost and tired of the incessant rain and the cold.
Again logical thing to do was to stay on board until the bus reached Kyoto station right? Wrong! KH got antsy at the long line of vehicles turning into Kyoto station and fretted that it would be “faster to get down and walk back to K’s House”. Looking at the map, it did not look far.
What to do? Maps can be so frustratingly deceiving! And my dear husband can be so exasperatingly stubborn that its just not funny anymore! First, the rain was really coming down. So I said, let’s stop and put on our raincoats. No, went he – no need, its not a lot of rain, too much hassle etc etc. But looking at the rain, I had had enough and I put my foot down. Raincoats out! I buttoned everyone up, hands shaking and teeth chattering. Lucky for us I did.
Did we reach K’s House? Yes. Eventually. After trudging more than a kilometre in the rain, the cold etc, trying to recognise landmarks. I had half a mind to just hail a cab but Mr Stiff-Upper-Lip did not see the need to. So we trudged. Or straggled. I seethed. By the time we got back to K’s House, what would have just taken us just 10min from Kyoto station, took more than an hour. The raincoats were dripping (so much for “Its not so much rain!”), our shoes were wet and we were all tired from our impromptu walk.
The hot water showers were blissful! Meanwhile, Mr Anti-Social KH had succeeded in burning out a hair dryer as he attempted to dry his shoes. A pungent burn smell combined with wet shoe smell permeated the corridors. When I came out to use the hairdryer, it didn’t work. And the nice American lady I met the night before said: “I could smell the burning wire from my room. Someone must have burned the hairdryer.” I knew who it was of course…
Thankfully, it was movie night so KH and the kids stayed in the TV room while I spaced out in my bunk. I needed the space. I was still annoyed. On top of all his bad decisions that night, what made me stew was his smug assertion that it was the “Italian factor” that was responsible for our lemon experience.
What was the “Italian factor”? Let me explain. Many years ago, we visited Italy and fell in love. We loved it so much we went back again the second time. But second time was not so lucky – the weather was bad, and somehow, the places we went to had lost its charm. So the trick, he always said, is NEVER go back to a country which you liked when you travelled there previously. Things will always go wrong and your experience would be lousy.
This time, he had issued the usual doom-and-gloom warnings about returning to Japan. The “Italian factor” he reminded me darkly. And this night’s experience seemed to match all his dire warnings. The “I told you so” really stung. So I was in my bunk brooding and licking my wounds.
Kyoto, I feel, has no chemistry with us. The last time we were here, the same thing happened – bad weather, drama at Tofukuji, same bad bus ride experience and so on. But I disagreed with KH about the “Italian factor”. I still enjoyed the other parts of Japan and I was still madly in love. True, the first flush of love is not there, but Japan is still fresh enough for me to provide some unexpected delightful surprises.
Its just… Kyoto. Or me?
Everyone inevitably gushes about Kyoto so I really feel like some kind of oddball, or cultural neanderthal to not fall in love with it as everyone else does. I tried, I really did. Two experiences with Kyoto and both have left me cold. I just find it hard to make a positive, emotional connection with the place. By and large, I find the people not as warm as Tokyo-ites (with the exception of a handful), the weather always sucky in general (grey, gloomy, cold and wet!) and the bus service really really needs an overhaul! I feel bad complaining about SBS and SMRT when I’m in Kyoto! We really have it much better here at home.
Ah well, just chalk it down to bad luck and no chemistry I guess.
As a footnote, I realised that I had left the Lonely Planet in K’s House after all – thank God! Someone found it and returned it to the reception counter. But being happy about the book just made me madder that I had to trudge all the way back to the bridge and back to look for it! Grr…