The first day of the Kyoto Walking Tour certainly exceeded expectations. Douglas and Tamao’s diligent preparations paid off! Today was our only day on a chartered coach; the rest will be on public transportation or taxis.
We left the Kansai airport hotel promptly at 8, and during the 2-hour drive to the outskirts of Kyoto, Douglas gave us the scoop on what to expect for the next two weeks, his expectations of us (i.e., showing up on time every place), and a general overview of his philosophy in structuring these tours. He feels strongly about Japanese gardens and is not shy about expressing his opinions. He lived in Japan for ten years and studied gardening for several years here. His opinions often differ from those of other experts and books.
His goal for this trip is to show us the highest quality gardens, explain why they are considered the best, and help us to understand the ideas behind sukiya living, the concept that gardens are a part of our daily life, not something we should only visit, pay money to see, and then leave. He is passionate about the importance of gardens in our lives.
Our first garden was Sambon-in, established in 902, redone in 1598. It is known best as a garden of over 700 stones. The temple dates from the Heian period, but it fell into disrepair during the Momoyama. Toyotomi Hideyoshi changed all of that when he met the priest Giyen in 1598, while on a cherry blossom-viewing trip nearby. He agreed to Giyen's request to restore the gardens and temple and construction began immediately. The work was completed in six weeks, though Yoshiro (Kentei) worked on the garden for another twenty years afterward. The garden is supposed to include 700 stones, most of which came from other locations. Hideyoshi's own palace, Jurakudai, was the source for many of them. The temple also boasts other gardens including a double-gourd arrangement near the Hondo and several smaller ones.
Douglas taught us how to look at stones and their placement and asked us to consider whether there were too many. He pointed out that some of them are of a different variety than others, and asked us whether they were distracting in their difference. He pointed out how azaleas planted close to stones balance the hardness of the stones with the softness of the plants. He described the ideal way to place stones around the edges of a pond, with differing heights, to create a three-dimensional look. It was a thought-provoking experience, one we have to relive in only our memories, since we were forbidden from taking photos.
From there, we moved on to the Ume-no-Hana Restaurant that specializes in Kyoto style tofu dishes (we discovered that this is a common ingredient in Kyoto-area food). Each of the many small plates held intriguing, beautiful, and surprisingly tasteful tofu. Even the tofu ice cream was delicious! Following lunch, we walked through an area called Fushimi, ending at the Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum, started in 1637, where we had a tour to see how sake is made. The water of the area is extremely soft and makes excellent sake. Of course, the tasting room was a hit. The surprise delight was a combination of the very sweet plum wine with a semi-dry sake. Oishi desu, neh?
Our last stop of the day was a model home village where home builders showcase the latest in homes and furnishings, much like the Street of Dreams in Portland except that these homes get torn down! (What a waste!) This was a nice contrasting experience after see all "old" things earlier in the day. Some of the homes had interesting small "pocket gardens" tucked both inside and outside the house. Douglas said that very few, if any, foreigners visit this example of contemporary Japanese homes.
After visiting the modern homes, our bus dropped us at our hotel, the PalaceSide, our home for the next three weeks. It's old, the rooms are typical of other Japanese hotels (i.e., small), but it is convenient to just about everything, and it's a bargain. Not only that, but it’s directly across the street from the grounds of the Kyoto Imperial Palace, an area roughly the size of New York’s Central Park.
Douglas took us on a walking tour of the neighborhood. Most importantly, he showed us the "conbene" (convenience stores, AKA 7-Eleven, Circle K, and Lawsons), where you can find anything you need. We also trooped through the local supermarket before having dinner at a small neighborhood restaurant.
Our tour group consists of 14 people from Connecticut, New Jersey, New Mexico, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Great Britain, British Columbia, and Sweden. I am the only one from Oregon, but another tour guide from the Portland Garden, Alan, lives in Battle Ground, Washington. It seems like a very compatible group, and it's fun to learn how the common interest in Japanese gardens has spread so far. I hope you find this blog interesting!