Spring in Kyoto

By | Category: Travel destinations

Blossom time in Kyoto

For centuries cherry blossom time has been celebrated in Japan, so it was with excitement that I found myself bound for Kyoto, cultural centre of Japan. Kyoto is a big modern city built on a grid system which makes it easy to find your way about and, a great bonus for travellers, it is clean and very safe. Large department stores and modern boutiques abound but it is more fun to explore the tiny alleys of the old town where traditional wooden houses known as machiya can still be found. Many are now craft shops and it is worth venturing inside if only to see the exquisite little courtyard gardens contained within.

It is great gardens for which Kyoto is famous and the first anyone wants to see the Zen dry garden Ryoan-ji. It is a world heritage site and one of the best known gardens in the world, not just Japan, so I had anticipated crowds. Luckily I had been advised to go early before the tour buses arrive and so in the cool of the morning, just a handful of us had the fifteen world-famous stones to ourselves. What are they? Tiger Cubs? Peaks of consciousness? Who knows – but contemplating them does seem to refresh the spirit.

I had not realised that this garden, which is only a 30m x 10m rectangle contained within earthen walls – and like many of the smaller gardens, designed to be viewed from a veranda, is in fact part of a bigger estate with decorative buildings and a large pond. Here, as I strolled beneath the cherry trees I was able to appreciate the loveliness of the Japanese spring. I watched the intensely disciplined techniques used by the gardeners at work around us. Trees are pruned severely, branches are twisted and tied into shape and a limited palette of flowers is employed – only those with symbolic or allusive elements being really valued.


The importance of symbolism in the garden was apparent the next day when I visited the extensive Temple complex of Daitoku-ji. Here several more dry gardens express man’s relationship with nature, his place in the universe and even paradise. My favourite was Daisen-in, a three dimensional version of the monochrome paintings of the Sung period. The most minimalist garden, known as ‘The Ocean of Nothingness’ consists simply of two gravel cones on a rectangular bed of white gravel raked to wave patterns. In these gardens real water, plants and hills have been replaced by abstractions, creating for us westerners an entirely fresh concept of the garden.

The celebrated moss garden Saihō-ji could not have been more different. Nearly all the gardens are attached to Shrines or Temples, and the entry fee for this one is ten times higher than other gardens and before being allowed to see the garden all visitors had to kneel at low desks and trace sutras with ink sticks for half an hour while a monk chanted. In fact it put me in the mood for this extraordinary garden – a pond surrounded by a garden containing 120 varieties of moss with a rock work garden depicting our imperfect world. It is in fact an accidental masterpiece, the moss developed all over the shady site during the seven hundred year old Temple’s years of neglect. The silent, misty garden has a strange, somewhat troubling atmosphere – as if one were contained within a cocoon.

Kyoto is known not only for its proliferation of wonderful gardens but also for its geishas. In the Gion and Pontocho districts these proud kimono-clad beauties can sometimes be seen clattering past on their wooden getas and there are still prestigious ochaya or teahouses at which they entertain – and which no tourist could penetrate.

My April visit however, meant I could attend one of the seasonal shows put on by the maiko, or apprentice geishas. Before the performance the maiko prepare and serve a ceremonial tea to the audience in an ante-room. You sit on the floor, sip the green tea, nibble a sweetmeat – and then wrap the plate in the napkin and keep it!

The performance itself is a glorious extravaganza of song and dance with stunning costumes and sets. I had inside information, as a Japanese friend lives in the Gion and several of her friends were in the show. I couldn’t believe it when she pointed out a slim solo dancer and said she was over 70 years old. “Once a geisha, always a geisha,” she told me.

Another exciting trip was to an old house Nijō-ji’nya, formerly an inn frequented by War Lords, which is now open to the public. Accompanied by my friend ( an interpreter is almost essential) I was astonished to find the interior of this ordinary looking house fitted with trap doors, escape hatches, false walls, spy holes, and confusing dead ends – all constructed so that plotters within could be warned of spies and effect an easy escape.

One could stay weeks in Kyoto without exhausting its cultural attractions. My most memorable experience? Opting for one night in a traditional Japanese inn – Ryokan Hiiragiya. Bathing in a deep cedar bath, enjoying my own little garden as dusk fell, sampling a meal in which each of the 13 courses was a minor work of art before sleeping on the floor on a futon….unforgettable.

The Ocean of Nothingness

My favourite garden ?
The Garden of the Moon at Jōju-in. Impeccably clipped azalea bushes, impressive rocks and old trees surround a pond – but the small garden, which is half way up a hillside effectively ‘borrows” the all the surrounding landscape and incorporates it into an exquisite picture. The garden is so named because its beauty is apparently at its height in autumn when the moon shines through maples and is reflected in the water.

Just one more reason to return to Kyoto.

For more information about Kyoto, click here.

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