Kyoto, Japan, October 2011 travel blog

Rice field in a neighborhood

Rice ready to harvest

Pine tree at Enkoh-ji

Waves of azaleas at Shisen-do

Calming view of azaleas, from the rear of the room, where you...

Looking toward the house (the room in which the previous photo was...

Lower garden at Shisen-do

Lower garden at Shinsen-do.

Gardener at Shisen-do


The faucet just didn't seem quite right here!

Fine sand raked at Shisen-do

Poetry stone at Konpuku-ji

From above the steep steps at Konpuku-ji

Mr. Ibata, world famous calligrapher, demonstrated his art for us.

Douglas and Tamao have surely outdone themselves, and it's only the second full day. Their intuition about what will be interesting, when to visit various sites, and when we need a break, is uncanny!

This was an action-packed day, and every turn revealed new vistas and new ideas. Our hotel provides a wonderful buffet breakfast each morning, with both Western-style and Japanese selections. Douglas advised us to eat heartily, as we would be on the go constantly. I know now to believe him!

We gathered at 8 this morning and headed for the subway, a few blocks away. We took the subway to Matsugasaki, then three cabs for the short, but steep, ride up into a neighborhood at the base of the mountains that surround Kyoto, Manshu-in. Basically, our entire day was spent meandering through neighborhoods, viewing old homes, temples and gardens, and then happening upon something new. Douglas is an excellent teacher. His explanations are thorough and interesting. He is highly opinionated, but challenges us to rethink what we may have learned or assumed about Japanese gardens. When we stop someplace, he focuses entirely on the garden, not on history or religion. He points out to us that religion plays a small part in most Japanese people's lives, and that "temples" are actually more like community centers.

Our first study garden was at Enko-ji Temple. Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) founded this temple in 1601 in Fushimi as a school to educate samurai and priests. It was just one year after he won the crucial battle in Sekigahara and came to power. The ninth principal of Ashikaga School, priest San'yo Genkitsu was assigned as the first principal of the new temple.

Tokugawa shogunate moved the temple to the present site in 1667. From Meiji era (1868-1912) until recently the Rinzai sect temple was a nunnery. Now, it is a dojo of Nanzen-ji temple.

Second was Shisen-do, a tranquil garden that just begs to be explored. Douglas talked with us about sitting at the back of the tatami room, not on the engawa, to bring the garden into the room. The garden flows seamlessly from the house. There is almost no line of demarcation from the inside to the outside. He also explained that when people live up high on a hill, the garden must not drop off from the edge of the house, but extend out away from it, so retaining walls must be built. In this garden, sculpted azaleas are dominant. He talked about pruning the azaleas so they are beautiful all year long, not just during the short blooming season.

For those who are interested in history, here's what I've found about Shisen-do: Built by Ishikawa Jozan (1584-1672) after he was exiled from Edo by the Tokugawas, this small garden served as Ishikawa's refuge to study tea, philosophy and garden design. He moved to this site in the hills of northeastern Kyoto in 1636. It was not designed in the contemporary tea garden style, though it has changed somewhat from the original. Its memorable features include a large camellia tree, a bamboo forest framing the entrance, karikomi azaleas, maples, a shishi-odoshi, and its blending of interior and exterior spaces. The garden uses a common arrangement of dry gravel in the foreground, clipped karikomi azaleas in the midground and a verdant hillside the background.

His house consists of a kitchen and living quarters, reading rooms, living room and a small tower built for moon-viewing. The main foyer boasts portraits of 36 famous poets and lends the name 'Shisendo' or 'House of the Great Poets'.

After enjoying the view from the tatami area, we explored the lower garden, with its small koi pond and very different vegetation. The shishi-odoshi was much louder than the one in the Portland garden, due to the bamboo being at least twice the diameter. We also watched a gardener at work, using her bamboo broom to sweep.

Konpuku-ji was a smaller garden, again with great azalea formations. It was home to a poet, and large stones contain poetry.

Our next visit was the highlight of the day. We were honored to enter the home of Mr. Shotei Ibata, a world-respected calligrapher. He doesn't sit at a table and do small pieces. He uses huge brushes and dances his body and brush across large pieces of paper, creating incredibly beautiful artwork. He demonstrated his skill in such a way that left our group gasping. He's been at his art for the best part of his life, and he is probably about 80 years old. Many of us purchased some of his smaller works (including me!). Here's a website that shows him and some of his work:

Lunch was at the Heihachi Chaya, a tea house founded in 1576 and located along the Takano River overlooking Mt. Hiei in the East. It was a delicious bento lunch served in a room featuring one of the huge calligraphies of Mr. Ibata. The garden surrounding the inn was peaceful and lovely. At the entrance of Heihachi Tea House Inn stands the four-hundred-year old Kigyumon Gate, which was transferred from a Zen Buddhist temple.

We strolled through more neighborhoods and watched three craftsmen make tatami mats. Fascinating!

Douglas never misses a chance to educate us or to take a chance to find something new. He turned into a modern building which featured totally different, modern approaches that left us spellbound. We entered the huge glass doors and marveled at what we saw, an amazing contemporary water garden. Suddenly, a young woman emerged, telling us that we must leave, immediately. We had entered a wedding hall, and just as we turned to leave, a curtain parted to reveal an entire wedding party. At the climactic moment in their ceremony, when a curtain was raised to silhouette the bridal couple against the backdrop of the lovely garden, here was this gaggle of uninvited Americans! We beat a hasty retreat.

Our last stop was a DIY store (Do It Yourself) that was the Japanese equivalent of Home Depot. I was worried about my camera battery and HD card, so spent our limited time searching for them. We took the subway back to our hotel, and had a free evening.

Can hardly wait to see what tomorrow brings!

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