12/28/2013 – Day 9 in Japan

January 3, 2014 - 11:42 am 1 Comment

A picture is worth a thousand words, and to express the serenity, beauty, and sheer grandeur of the sights we saw today, it’s more apt to show with a photo album than with words. Nevertheless, I will try. We woke up early to see Nijo Castle, a UNESCO world heritage site and the residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu, built in 1626. Unfortunately, we only had a chance to see the outer gates since the caste was closed for renovation and re-decorating ahead of the new year.

We returned back to Kyoto central station for a quick breakfast and to meet Erica, one of Grace’s longest-standing friends from when she did a summer abroad in Montreal in high school. Our goal for today: to tackle Kinkakuji, Ryoanji, and Ninnaji Temples in an afternoon.

Kinkakuji in one word – majestic. Translated roughly as “Temple of the Golden Pavillion”, Kinkakuji is a UNESCO world heritage site renowned for its Muromachi period garden design with the original design dating back to 1397. Gold leaf covers the entire three-story pavillion, strategically positioned on an island surrounded by a magnificent Japanese strolling garden. Evidently, the grounds were built on the fundamental principles of the Western Paradise of Buddhist Amida to illustrate the harmony between heaven and earth. With the sky blue and the weather very crisp, it was truly a perfect day to enjoy the walk and marvel at the splendor of the garden. Grace took so many postcard-perfect photos – it takes absolutely no skill to capture a perfect moment because of the breathtaking naturalistic minimalistic setting which belie a painstaking amount of effort to create.

We then took a short walk to Ryoanji Temple, stopping on the way for Kaiten Sushi (conveyor belt sushi), which I love the most. What luck! We stumbled on a great family location, completely mechanized with the added bonus “games” that we could play to win gatcha-pon prizes after eating a certain number of plates. Salmon/avocado/onion, seared salmon with garlic butter, maguro (tuna) in large quantities and in all different shapes, salt and fresh water eel, tender scallops, octopus, crab, grilled mackeral, shrimp tempura…we stuffed ourselves silly while sipping delicious powder tea (which I bought from the restaurant since I enjoyed it so much). At only 100 yen per plate containing two sushi, a fantastically fresh and delicious lunch came out only to be $26 for the three of us. Oh, if only we could find something like this in New York and at this price point for the quality!

Our bellies filled with wonderful sushi, we headed to Ryoanji (Temple of the Dragon at Peace), a UNESCO world heritage site famous for its zen kare-sansui (Japanese rock garden). Built in the 15th century, the temple served as the mausoleum for the late Hosokawa emperors. The famous rock garden was much smaller than I had originally anticipated, spanning a rectangle of 248 square meters with 15 stones of different sizes, composed in five separate groups. The stones are surrounded by white gravel, carefully raked daily by the resident monks. I’m not quite sure what makes the garden so special, but after doing some reading, it seems that scientific analysis shows that the empty space of the garden is implicitly structured to align with the temple’s architecture such that the critical access of symmetry passes close to the center of the main hall. Hence, the implicit structure of the garden appeals to the viewer’s unconscious visual sensitivity to axial-symmetry skeletons of stimulus shapes. This garden has been subject to a lot of academic debate…frankly, from my perspective, it is just a simple and beautiful garden meant to be enjoyed for its simplistic and serene design.

After Ryoanji, we headed to Ninna-ji, which probably ranks last in terms of tourist popularity but in my opinion, was the shining point of the day and one of the most memorable and exciting experiences of our Kyoto trip, far surpassing anything we’ve seen today. Founded in the Heian period around 886, Ninna-ji is a sprawling temple complex filled with things to see and discover, from a gigantic pagoda (the scene for the Kyoto tourist photo of the pagoda surrounded by cherry blossoms), a sakura garden, smaller temples representing architectural styles of different periods, and most importantly, the Goten – the former residence of the head priest. Grace took some spectacularly breath-taking pictures, capturing the elegant wooden covered corridors between interior buildings, detailed painted sliding doors, and the interior rock and pond gardens. Mirroring the style of the imperial palace, wandering the Goten barefoot evoked a strong feeling of tradition. Ninna-ji is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and well worth a visit again, particularly in the spring during the cherry blossom season. Words fail to describe the sense of overwhelming beauty and serenity that we felt.

We then returned to Kyoto station for a green tea parfait with Grace’s friend before parting ways. Grace and I then headed to the Kyoto Avanti department store for some shopping to take advantage of the big holiday sales! Given the exchange rate and the discounts, we bought a lot of wonderful gifts, clothing, and shoes for very cheap. I love the style of the latest Japanese fashion for women so I splurged a bit. We then had dinner in the basement food complex, selecting a really special teishoku restaurant that served healthy set meals, including a ground rice and mountain yam cold sticky soup that evidently is very good for you. I loved the tofu and the pickled vegetables…alas, when I leave Japan, I will miss all this incredible food and the presentation and variety of the teishoku meal!

One Response to “12/28/2013 – Day 9 in Japan”

  1. yoda Says:

    It’s great that you two visited cultural places especially in Kyoto, and meet up old friend. Japanese food excels on its own style which even I agree and can enjoy. So when I visit next I will sample a full range of varieties. Be honest I always feel ambivalent visiting there – but to treat it a field trip, to verify Spengler’s theory, I will see first hand the manner they transform our culture.

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