We kicked off our first day in Japan playing tourists in Kyoto. For me it was a great way to be introduced to Japanese culture, and also a great opportunity to get to know 39 of my fellow classmates.
Entirely jet-lagged, I was in for a full day. On the agenda: 4 temple visits, a traditional tea ceremony w/lunch, a tour around Kyoto’s Geisha district, and a shabu-shabu dinner (complete with Geisha entertainment).
First stop, the Golden Pavilion. This temple is incredible. It is entirely gilded with a gold paper, and the building itself incorporates three styles of Japanese architecture that eventually melted into a style of its own. After taking a few pictures we had the opportunity to walk around the gardens. Let me tell you, after being cooped up in NYC this winter, it was an absolute treat to walk around. The garden at the Golden Pavilion is in the traditional Muromachi style garden. Clearly gorgeous.
Apparently this is one of two of the traditional types of gardens seen in Japan, the other being the kare-sansui or Japanese rock garden. We were able to see a great example of the rock garden at the Ryoan Temple.
Our guide (who was just amazing) was able to explain that the garden plays a central role in meditation. When you meditate you face the garden, so simplicity of design is key so as to not cause distractions. Both styles are designed with this in mind.
For a break between temple sightings, we headed to Tondaya for a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. We were told that the tea ceremony also played an important role in meditation, because the tea was used to keep you awake (as a student, I totally understand). This was really an entirely new experience for me. Prior to drinking the tea they give you a few sweets. The tea is made of matcha powder (which is powdered green tea), and you eat the sweets first to make it less bitter. When the tea is presented to you they present the best face of the bowl. To be polite you need to turn the bowl first to drink out of it. I don’t think I have all the rules down yet…but I’ll keep practicing.
Fueled and now fully caffeinated from our green tea we headed out to the Sangendo Temple. Words cannot describe how amazing this temple was. But unfortunately, no pictures. Just know that the main hall of the temple is filled with 1001 Buddha statues. Each were meticulously hand carved hundreds of years ago, and gilded. Each Buddha has a dozen or so hands to help all of the people, and several faces to see all of the people. Each hand and face a different detail. Hard to explain, but truly a sight to see.
Next on the agenda was a trip to Kiyomizu Temple, which is a really popular temple to visit. After taking the trip, I can definitely see why. It is built on a hillside overlooking Kyoto. Leading up to the temple are dozens of cute little shops carrying souvenirs, pastries, tea houses…and luckily umbrellas, because it was pouring. Undeterred by the rain I had the opportunity to walk all around the temple. Behind the main temple building there is a Shinto Shrine dedicated to the God of Love (at least I think that was it…or maybe Good Marriage). Anyway, there were tons of ladies lined up at the steps of the shrine. Apparently there are two rocks, and if you touch one of them and then turn around and find the other one with your eyes closed you will find your love. Well, I am married and the line was too long to see it, so I just headed down to the waterfall. The water of Kiyomizu is said to be completely pure. Here people line up to take a drink from the fountain.
After touring Kiyomizu we headed back into the city. We had a few hours to kill before dinner, so our guide graciously offered to show us a few areas that might be of interest. The tour included a covered shopping center, complete with food market and a walking tour of some of the preserved Geisha districts of Kyoto. By this point I was tired. I was soaked head to toe from all the rain, and the last thing I wanted to do was trek around the city…so of course that is what I did. It was fascinating to see the districts and to hear about the training and apprenticeship process of becoming a Geisha. Even better was the opportunity to talk to a few Geisha performers at dinner to ask further questions about why they became Geisha, how long it took to move from apprentice to full-blown Geisha, and what the work is like throughout the different stages.
All in all a great day. Kyoto is beautiful, and I learned a lot about Buddhism, Shinto, Geisha and a few old traditions. I think the day raised as many questions as it answered. I am now hooked on Japan. I want to continue to research and learn about the culture I have now witnessed. And this is just day one! I can’t wait to see the rest of what Japan has to offer!