Kyoto, the ancient capitol of Japan is full of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, so when I read about the Philosopher’s Walk I pictured an ancient man with a wispy beard reciting prayers while walking. I was wrong. The Philosopher’s Walk is one of Kyoto’s best-loved spots and the philosopher in question was professor Nishida Kitaro (1870-1945) who took his morning walks along the canal. It is a lovely one-mile walk in all seasons but spectacular when the cherry blossoms bloom in the spring and the maple trees change in the fall. The canal is not Venice or Amsterdam size. It is more like an aqueduct next to a stone path alongside a narrow road. I did not know anything about the professor but I imagined he visited the temples and shrines that lie above the walk at the foot of the Higashiyama (Eastern Mountain) in the cool forests as we did.
He may have gone into the Ginkakuji Temple, a Unesco World Heritage site that is where the walk begins. The temple was built in 1489 as a retirement home for the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa. Perhaps he sat and meditated by gazing at the sand garden. It is made up of white sand waves (really very fine pebbles) and two unique sand sculptures: the Kogetsudai which is the moon mound and the Ginsaden which is mounded and raked to look like a sea of silver sand. It was designed to reflect the moonlight onto the building, which turns it silver. Hence the temple’s other name, the Silver Pavilion. Or he may have had time to stroll the path up the hill and wander alongside the ponds and the trees in the strolling garden.
The road leading up to the Silver Pavilion is lined with vendors selling a variety of products in their tiny stalls. I am sure they have been there since the temple was built and only the product has changed! I bought a fan as the heat and humidity were very high.
Or picture him going to Honen-In, a small rustic temple deep in the forest of cedars that shade and scent the stone steps and paths. It too has a sand wave garden with water basins and lanterns.
On another day, after walking for a while the professor may have walked as we did onto the Eikan-do temple grounds. Here the temple complex of buildings, connected by corridors and steps are set in park like grounds. As we wound our way along the corridors we walked from building to building looking at the special Buddhist statues enshrined in each. One is known as the Fire protector Buddha because it was the only one of five that did not burn. Others are in the two-storied pagoda built high on the hill with a fabulous view of Kyoto.
My favorite is the Amidah Buddha. The guide pamphlet tells the following story: In the early hours of February 15 1082, the chief priest Abbot Eikan was intoning the Nembutsu while walking around the statue of Amida. Suddenly the statue came down from its pedestal and began walking away. I imagine the priest stood with his mouth open, especially when Amidah turning his head, said “Eikan, come with me” And so, Eikan followed and prayed for Amidah to keep that form forever.
The Buddha is a small gold statue and can be seen and prayed to from two sides. They write that Amidah has an open heart and teaches with his backward glance that people can lead and follow. The beauty of the statue and the devotion of the words moved me. I also liked the name because in Judaism, Amidah is the name of a prayer.
After viewing the statues we strolled along the paths and visited what I think is a Shinto shrine on an island in a small lake. We rested in the shade and enjoyed the sound of the trickling stream.
Did I mention it was very hot? By this time into the walk, I don’t know about the professor, but I was very thirsty. While walking on the path I spotted a small café called Sedona. The name drew my attention and we went in to buy a bottle of water. The owner told us he had lived in Los Angeles for four years and had often travelled to Arizona for business meetings. He loved Sedona, hence his café’s name. He also liked Santa Fe and showed us the book he brought home from there. As we were not hungry we did not eat but I would recommend it.
To me, water is the sound of Kyoto. As we walked along the canal I loved the sound of the water trickling over the stones. When we strolled in the gardens the water rushed down the little man- made waterfalls. In some of the temple grounds there were streams running down the mountainside. The canals or aqueducts run alongside the roads and paths and there is a constant sound of flowing water.
By this time on the walk I was getting tired and thirsty and did I mention it was hot! As we came around a bend I saw placards along a bamboo fence with drawings in black and white of a woman’s face. It was almost like a ying –yang. Oh I thought I have to see what this is all about.
We went up the walk to a wooden building and stepped into a Japanese garden and saw the sign in English, Yojiya café. We had found the tearoom that the author of The Teahouse Fire had described. The tearoom was a large room with a tatami floor and sliding glass doors looking out onto the garden. Tea and sweets were served to us on black lacquer trays as we sat on small cushions on the tatami mat. The Japanese sat on their knees as they have for centuries while we, with our bad knees and creaking bones tried to make our legs and bare feet disappear! I am lucky I have been doing yoga because I have had practice getting up of the floor!
While we waited for a “table” (it is a popular place) John sat in the garden and I went into the small cosmetic store at the other end. Before I could buy anything our names were called. After taking our shoes off we sunk or fell to the ground.
I ordered an iced green tea latte and John ordered an iced green tea cappuccino. They also brought us a sweets tray that consisted of three tiny cookies, a small bowl of fruited jello and a bean curd chewy bun.
We were so dry and our knees hurt so much we drank and swallowed it down pretty quickly. We did talk to the Korean couple that sat next to us and requested our picture. So somewhere in Korea is a picture of us sitting in great discomfort in a Japanese teahouse.
When we were finished the server gave us a little piece of paper to blot our faces with. Apparently these little squares of paper are sold all over Japan and women use them to blot the oil from their faces. We used it to blot the sweat and I went back to the store to buy some packets. It was a great experience and I recommend it to anyone who can get up and down from the floor!
On your trip to Kyoto walk the Philosopher’s path and discover its beauty.