From the train station of the ancient capital of Kyoto, the vista of gritty modernity seems interchangeable with any other ugly Japanese city. The outlandish Kyoto Tower rising into the smog mocks one's expectations of finding the essence of Japanese culture and refinement. Although the guidebooks promised treasures in a city spared the horrors of U.S. bombing in World War II, this hardly seems the renowned city of majestic monasteries, elegant inns and secluded moss gardens.
And yet, if the tourist goes about things the right way, Kyoto can be everything the guidebooks promise. This is a miraculous city to roam and discover. One can still hear the geisha clip-clopping down ancient, narrow streets in their wooden sandals as dusk falls, or come across the best lacquerware shop in Japan, or walk up a forest path to find oneself suddenly face-to-face with a breathtakingly beautiful wooden temple.
So the challenge is to transport oneself from the first Kyoto of cement blocks and underground malls, to the second, minimizing as much as possible the initial shock and disappointment. And although every Kyoto devotee has a personal prescription, surely one solution is to pass the first day or two cocooned in the delightful precincts of Higashiyama, the eastern ridge of the city. There one can walk along tree-lined canals and past fine wooden houses, through bamboo groves
to pine-shaded centuries-old temples, to secluded garden restaurants and refined inns that have housed visitors for generations.
If one's luck holds, as ours did one day last spring, when the rain clouds broke to let the sun filter through the cherry blossoms, and the tour groups of uniformed, shouting high school boys found themselves blessedly on different schedules from ours, and the robed and shaved monks of Nanzenji monastery were bustling, oblivious to tourists, in preparation for a festival celebrating their temple's 700th birthday -- if one's luck holds, then after a day or two one can return to central Kyoto, fortified, one's faith restored, to root out the hidden charms of downtown, with its covered shopping streets, its streetcars, its centuries-old ninja houses, its craft shops and restaurants.
But be warned: The tourist who begins in the peacefulness of eastern Kyoto may never want to leave.
The spine of the eastern suburb of Shishigatani is the Philosopher's Walk, a quiet path running north-south alongside a narrow canal that was a daily walking route for one of Japan's famous thinkers, Kitaro Nishida. To its eastern, uphill side, a string of temples flanks the mountainside just as it becomes steep; to the west, dropping off toward downtown, lies a pleasant suburb with occasional unobtrusive tea houses and noodle shops.
The northern anchor of the walk is the famous Ginkakuji, or Silver Pavilion, with its remarkable garden. The southern anchor is the almost-as-famous precinct of Zen temples and gardens and vegetarian restaurants known as Nanzenji. In between are several temples that are considerably less famous, considerably less crowded -- and just as delightful to visit. The walk works equally well from either direction and can take anywhere from an hour or two, for a very abbreviated tour, to a whole day, if you stop to savor all there is.
Arriving in mid-afternoon, we checked in at our ryokan, or Japanese-style inn, and then wandered over to Nanzenji. Retired emperor Kameyama built a villa here in the 13th century, and then had it turned into a Zen temple. The original buildings burned down in fighting between rival Buddhist sects, and today the earliest date from about 1600.
Walking past the massive, two-story wooden gate (San-mon), we felt inclined to forgive such crass modernity. (The day we were there the gate was closed because of the festival, but most days one can climb the gate's narrow staircases for what is said to be a fine view of Kyoto.) Majestic pines towered above the pebbled paths, a dark background to the fresh green of the delicate Japanese maples scattered throughout the temple's large compound.
Behind the Konchi-in subtemple, we found ourselves alone in a beautiful garden, just as Zen in feeling but a bit more accessible than the famed Ryoan-ji rock garden across town: raked sand and weathered boulders, but also craggy pines and, behind, a walking path through lush moss and shrubbery. At the end of the path, somewhat incongruously, was a small, black-lacquer shrine built in 1628 for the great general and unifier of Japan, Tokugawa Ieyasu.
We then walked north, passing the Nomura Art Museum, with its pleasant garden and collection of tea ceremony utensils. The museum backs onto a warren of private, tree-lined lanes, that, with typical wooden Japanese houses hiding behind bamboo or wooden privacy fences, is definitely worth exploring.
Just beyond the museum is Eikan-do, one of the most underrated temples in Kyoto. Built into the green mountainside, this temple, also known as Zenrin-ji, begins as a kind of overgrown park, with a carp pond and even a kindergarten near the entrance. The temple halls, with their faded screens and fresh-cut tatami mats, are connected by a series of covered, open walkways that twist and turn along the hillside, framing a series of gardens and courtyards. At the end, the main hall houses a famous statue of Buddha looking over his shoulder. The pose is rare; most Buddhas look forward in poses of meditation or teaching.
By this time we were ready for the kind of rest and recuperation that only a ryokan can provide.
We walked back to our inn, Yachiyo, the former villa of a wealthy Osaka merchant located at the entrance of Nanzenji. There we soaked in a traditional wooden bath filled with scalding water, changed into loose crisply ironed cotton robes (yukata) and were served dinner on a low table in our tatami mat room, overlooking the tiny stream running through the garden just beyond our sliding doors.
The cooking was classic Kyoto: a dozen small dishes including sashimi, broiled fish, tempura, mountain vegetables and other seasonal foods, topped off with rice, soup and pickles. Yachiyo also has a restaurant for non-guests, and, unlike many ryokan, allows guests to eat dinner elsewhere if they want some variety after the first night.
The next morning, rather than retracing our steps, we rode five minutes by taxi to the northern end of the Philosopher's Walk. There, we climbed a long narrow street lined with shops, passed through a formal walkway lined with tall hedges and entered Ginkakuji, the temple of the Silver Pavilion.
Unlike the Gold Pavilion across town, the Silver Pavilion is not really silver. The shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa, who built this modest palace and garden as a retirement villa in the 15th century, died before he could complete his design. But also unlike the Gold Pavilion, the delicate tea ceremony house here is original, never burned, and the lovely garden, with a waterfall, pond and mossy rocks, is also true to its original design. The crowds here can detract from but not spoil the attraction. Still, it was a welcome surprise that, as we left Ginkakuji behind and began our southward stroll on the Philosopher's Walk, we left the schoolchildren and tour groups behind too.
The Official Cherry Blossom Season had ended. But in Japan, the Official Rainy Season often ends in more rain, and the Official Foliage-Viewing Season is declared over while lovely leaves remain on many trees; so too the end of cherry-blossom viewing is a matter of form, not substance. At this most famous viewing place, the crowds were gone, but many fruit trees remained in bloom, and petals fluttered through the sunshine, floating away on the canal that follows the Philosopher's Walk.
Presently we reached two smaller temples that are off the beaten tourist track but worth exploring if only to savor the interesting history around them.
Honen-in is dedicated to the priest who made Buddhism accessible to the masses for the first time. The temple is open only during the first weeks of April and November, when its four-centuries-old screens draw many visitors. But the grounds, open daily, are beautiful in themselves. Huge cedar trees tower over the walk up to a thatched gate, beyond which lie two mounds of sand, artfully raked into careful designs every few days by Honen-in's priests. Stone paths lead past a pond and temple buildings under a canopy of lush trees that cascade down from the mountains. In a graveyard on the grounds lies Junichiro Tanizaki, one of Japan's most famous modern novelists.
A copse of bamboo separates Honen-in from Anraku-ji, the next temple along the walk, built to honor two of Honen's disciples. Around the turn of the 13th century, the two handsome young priests managed to convert to their sect of Buddhism two of the emperor's favorite concubines, who shaved their heads and became nuns -- amid suspicion that their motives were not purely religious. The enraged emperor ordered the execution of both priests, and it is said that the ladies-in-waiting, Pine Cricket and Bell Cricket, subsequently killed themselves. The small temple itself is open only a few days a year. But the verdant grounds, with the monks' tombs and concubines' graves, can be visited any time.
After Anraku-ji, too soon, we reached the end of the Philosopher's Walk. We headed for one of the Zen-based tofu restaurants near Nanzenji where we had commenced the day before. There are several such restaurants in the neighborhood, hiding behind white-washed walls, with narrow paths and pleasant gardens to look out on. We chose Okutan, founded in 1636, and serving more or less the same food since: tofu in a half-dozen forms, some steamed in water, others grilled and covered with nutty-flavored sauces, or in soup with tiny mushrooms -- surprisingly flavorful to a confirmed meat-eater. There was also rice, vegetable tempura and Japanese pickles, for about $20 per person.
Well-fed and, after two days, infused with the feel of old Kyoto, we then set off for the rest of the city.