Wednesday, February 2: A young Korean guy attaches himself to me first thing in the morning. He speaks fluent Japanese in addition to his native Korean, but very little English. Despite this, he tells the guesthouse owner that he wants to accompany me to Ginkaku-ji and the owner translates this for me. Yeong-ung Song is a student at university here in Japan, and he’s traveling through the country.
Maybe Yeong-ung Song overhears me say I am going to Ginkaku-ji, which is along what is called the Path of Philosophy, or Tetsugaku-no-Michi. We think we are going to the same place. In reality, Yeong-ung Song wants to go to Kinkaku-ji. In the Korean language, the “G” sound and the “K” sound are interchangeable. There is one letter for those two sounds in the Korean alphabet. So, in Korea, if I am traveling to “Gyeongju” for example, I may find signs in the bus terminal transliterated to “Kyeongju.” These sounds are one and the same in Korea. But here in Japan, these two names mean different things and different places: Ginkaku-ji translates as Silver Pavilion; though it doesn’t really have a Silver Pavilion it has this nickname to distinguish it from Kinkaku-ji, which means Golden Pavilion.
So, Yeong-ung and I head down the “shopping street” and arrive at the Daitokuji bus stop. I know that I need to get on the eastbound bus, but Yeong-ung wants to cross the street and catch the westbound bus. We go back and forth over this, with me trying to explain that I need to be on the eastbound side of the street; he insists we need to be on the westbound side. Finally we both get out our maps, and I point to the Philosopher’s Walk, and Ginkaku-ji, on the east side of Kyoto. He points to Kinkaku-ji on the west side. I say, We’re not going to the same place! I need to cross back to the other side. He says, Okay. I understand. He stays put and I cross over. Since I didn’t eat breakfast this morning, I run into the little market, much like a Trader Joe’s in the U.S., and buy a little omelette in the deli section. I take it out to the bus stop to wait. I see Yeong-ung waiting across the street. Then he crosses the street and heads toward me.
I say, What are you doing? Aren’t you going to Kinkaku-ji? He says, No. I promised you I would accompany you, so I will go with you to Ginkaku-ji. It’s very beautiful there. I say, Oh, so you’ve been there? He says yes. I say, You don’t need to come with me if you’ve already been there. He says, I will come! I promised you.
This is so strange. I never expected him to accompany me and was quite surprised when he even suggested it this morning. I’ve traveled alone all over Turkey, Vietnam, Cambodia and Korea, and I’m perfectly capable of figuring out how to get from one place to another, how to visit places all by myself. I’m a big girl! Is he worried for me because I’m older and new to Kyoto and all alone? Or, and this doesn’t occur to me till later, does he not feel comfortable going it alone into a foreign city?
We approach the temple after our bus ride, and Yeong-ung tells me we should go to a shrine above and to the left of the temple first. In that shrine, he shakes a cylindrical container full of long sticks until one comes out of a tiny hole in the container. The stick has a number on it, and he picks a piece of paper with a matching number. He has me do the same thing. The piece of paper has something written in Japanese. He looks at it and says, This is very good. Good luck! He gives a thumbs up. I say, What about yours? He says, it’s good but not as good as yours. Then he points to a tree nearby that has hundreds of pieces of paper tied to its branches. He says, Bad fortunes hang on tree. So, if I had gotten a bad fortune I would hang it on the tree. Yeong-ung pulls a paper from his wallet, like the one I am holding. He tells me, if you get a good fortune, like mine, you carry it around with you in your wallet all the time.
We then walk up the hill and between tall perfectly squared hedges to Ginkaku-ji, with a beautiful strolling garden and a wooden villa converted to a temple. In 1482 a shogun built the villa here as a retreat from the havoc of civil war. When the shogun died, it was converted to a temple. Walkways lead through peaceful and beautiful gardens. There is one perfectly raked white sand garden, designed to reflect the moonlight and enhance the garden’s beauty at night. Yeong-ung tells me it’s supposed to represent a lakeshore pattern, but I don’t know where he gets that information. We walk through the gardens together, and I can’t help but feel enticed by the moss-covered grounds that look like velvet blankets, beckoning sleep. There are streams and fountains burbling. The environment is incredibly serene and lovely. I run my hands along the cool and smooth bamboo handrails along the paths, feeling soothed just by their touch. The thought of thousands of hands on these rails makes me feel a sense of community with all those before who have strolled through these lovely gardens.
While I’m in these Japanese gardens, I find myself thinking, time and time again: These are stunning and it’s only winter! I can only imagine how gorgeous they must be in the spring and summer when flowers are in bloom and the trees are lush with leaves and cherry blossoms. I would love to come back to Japan in the spring or fall one year, to get the full array of colors and textures.
We spend a long time wandering. We throw coins in a pond and make wishes. We take pictures. I think of lying on the moss and taking a nap. But, I must now do the philosopher’s walk. Yeong-ung can’t understand why I want to walk when I can take a bus. He says he’s not going to walk. As if to convince me that I better rethink my plan. I say I guess then that we’ll part ways because I’m going to walk along this path. It’s a beautiful day, the air a sharp blue and the air brisk but not uncomfortable. I will enjoy the walk. He takes off toward the bus and I head along Tetsugaku-no-Michi, or the Path of Philosophy.
The Path of Philosophy is a pleasant walk along a canal, with temple stops along the way. The walk runs along the base of Higashiyama, Kyoto’s most noticeable mountain range. Though its trees are bare at this time of year, it’s still a lovely walk conducive to contemplating the meaning of life. Or to just wandering mindlessly. The name comes from a famous 20th century philosopher, Nishida Kitaro, who apparently wandered along this path absorbed in his thoughts. In spring, this path is known for its cherry blossoms, but in winter, the branches are stark and clean, of course.
I wander into a small temple called Honen-in, off the path so deep in the woods that I almost give up on finding it. This temple was founded in 1680 to honor a priest named Honen. Not as pretty as Ginkaku-ji, its attractiveness is in its seclusion.
By this time I’m getting hungry so I stop and have a lunch along the canal at Cafe Terrazza. It turns out it’s an Italian restaurant and the only thing that’s reasonably priced is spaghetti, potato soup and mango juice, so that’s what I have. It’s a lovely view over the canal though.
I continue my walk and, outside of a little boutique, I come upon colorful origami birds hanging on a bare-branched tree in a pot. I’m enticed inside this two-level shop that drips with little hanging delicacies. Little what-nots. I’m not sure what these things are meant to be, other than ornaments, but they are like balls of loosely wrapped solidified string, string cages, around air. Inside the balls are tiny origami birds. I wander into the shop mesmerized by the delicacy of these hanging objects. In addition to thousands of these balls, mobiles with origami umbrellas and with spools of quilting thread dangle from the ceiling. It’s magical, so perfectly arranged, so perfectly store-scaped. I’m mesmerized.
Things like this little shop, the perfectly landscaped gardens, these are what makes Japan different from Korea. The buildings themselves may look generally the same, but the things inside and around the buildings are lovely and perfect. Whether nature or man-made little trinkets, they’re all beautifully and enticingly arranged. Everywhere, around every corner, you come to pink and yellow boutiques filled with delicate but useless & cheery things. Exquisite chopsticks, miniature handbags made of kimono fabric, origami earrings. And then, outside, along the philosopher’s path, the ever-humming vending machines, surprisingly pretty, offering refreshment at every turn.
At some of the shrines along the way, I come across Ema, wooden plaques on which Shinto worshipers write their prayers or wishes. The ema are then left hanging up at the shrine, where the kami (spirits or gods) receive them. Ema are sold for various wishes. Common reasons for buying a plaque are for success in work or on exams, marital bliss, to have children, and health.
Next stop, Eikan-do, with its interesting architecture, beautiful gardens including sand gardens, and artwork. I take off my shoes and walk in my socks on the smooth wood walkways and balconies, up and down curved staircases. I climb the steep stairs to the Taho-to pagoda and see a grand view of Kyoto. Gardeners are working in the gardens, pruning, planting, perfecting them. On one path, I come upon a little pond with a wooden bridge to a little shrine. Ducks circle in the pond and from here I can see the pagoda nestled in the mountain above.
The final stop on the Philosopher’s Path is Nanzen-ji, a huge temple complex with numerous sub-temples. Nanzen-ji was once a retirement villa for Emperor Kameyama, but when he died in 1291, it was dedicated as a Zen temple. A 15th century civil war destroyed most of the buildings, so the present buildings date from the 17th century. I walk up to a cool brick aqueduct set in a clearing in the forest. Through the aqueduct, I find the subtemple Nanzen-in, which has a lovely garden built around a heart-shaped pond.
By now, I’m exhausted from my long walk but I also want to see Heian-jingu Shrine, built in 1895 to commemorate the 1100th anniversary of Kyoto’s founding. I think venturing to this shrine about does me in, as my legs are aching from an entire day of walking. A massive steel torii stands about 500 meters in front of the shrine, looking a bit removed but still considered the gate to the shrine. The shrine is all painted bright orange, unlike the natural wood and white-painted clean-cut temples I have seen all day. In front, I’m accosted by three Japanese high school girls who are doing a survey for school about Kyoto’s tourists. They ask me at least 20 questions about where I’m from, how long I’m staying, where I’ve been and where I plan to go, etc. As soon as I finish the game with them, I walk a few yards and am stopped by another group asking the same questions. I tell them I already took the quiz!
Inside I wander around the fine gravel grounds and I find two Japanese girls dressed in kimono. I tell them they look beautiful and ask if I can take a picture. I’m happy to capture these young ladies in their traditional clothes in front of this famous shrine.
Outside the shrine, a rickshaw driver asks if I’d like a tour of Kyoto. He says 5,000 yen for an hour, which is over $50! I say no, I can’t afford it! He offers a quarter-hour for 1,500 yen, so I take him up on that. It really isn’t much of a tour, but he promises to take me to Gion, where I’m heading anyway. There’s no way I can walk with my legs so wobbly by now. Besides, I get to wear a big fleece blanket. I have to say I look like the Queen Mother in that black rickshaw with that bright red blanket. Yikes. I feel like I should do that Queen wave, where you hold your hand up and rotate it back and forth. After the friendly driver drops me, I walk to the main street leading into Gion and come across the orange-colored Yasaka-jinja Shrine, beautiful in the waning sunlight.
By now, as I’ve been walking all day, I’m totally exhausted. And hungry. I run into an Indian guy trying to lure people into his restaurant, The Maharaja, and since I need to sit down now, I take him up on the offer. I’m the only one in the restaurant, just like last night (!), but Egyptian crowds running riot on the streets of Cairo keep me company on a flat-screen T.V. This news about Egyptians fighting for their freedom makes me really happy and reminds me, once again, that I am pulled back to Egypt. I would love to be in the midst of this excitement. While watching, I drink a Kingfisher beer.
By the time my dinner of prawn curry and garlic naan comes, the owners have switched the station to a Bollywood movie in Hindu with no subtitles. I watch, fascinated, as I always am by all things of the subcontinent, and dream of March 1, when I will finally get to go to the India I have read so much about.
After this delicious dinner ~ I love Indian food! ~ I take the bus back to Daitokuji, run into the Trader Joe’s look-alike market and get some breakfast foods and coffee, and walk along the dark shopping street, where people pedal past me on their shiny, old-fashioned bicycles in the silent night.