Finding Zen in Kyoto

Rain fell steadily as I pulled my suitcase along cobbled streets. I have so many memories of this introduction to a new place, always ignited by that sound. Earlier I’d walked the more touristy areas of Kyoto, like Kiyomizu-dera Temple and the area around, and I was spent. Everywhere I turned the streets were mobbed. This was not the picture of Kyoto I held in my mind. But then, as I walked away from the train station after piking up the  stowed bag I couldn’t locate, everything slowed down.

I arrived at my minshuku exhausted and was greeted by the rules of the house…where to put my bag, where to put my shoes, which slippers to wear where, absolutely none to be worn on the tatami. The house was ancient, entirely of wood and beautiful detail. The bathrooms were my favorite– lined in cedar wood, the aroma released when I took a hot shower at the end of the day. The stairs to the guestrooms reminded me of our old house, steep and windy, careful or you just may topple down.

The paper door is slid open and my little room is revealed. A blank slate of paper, wood, and tatami. A little desk in the corner that looks like a child’s but that is just because there is no chair. I’m shown the instructions to setting up my Japanese futon as well as the gas heater which is a lifesaver during these cold nights. I realize that the room next door is separated too by just a paper wall. I’m left alone and get to work making the bed. The bathroom is outside… not just outside the room, outside outside. It’s on a covered balcony that overlooks the garden below. The walk there is my first introduction to the true connection to the seasons in Kyoto.

While eating breakfast one morning, I told my host I wanted to visit temples. While drawing a route on a map he explained that he’d been raised at a monastery south of Kyoto (near to where I was headed next). And that day, I experienced the Zen I thought I would in Kyoto. The cyclists zipping about in their minimalist attire and the temples, some isolated and some not, that evoked the peace I was seeking. My backpack was stocked with onigiri and fruit.

Roan-ji is described as the most famous Zen garden in all of Japan. When I first arrive, the crowd is slim. I rest in front of the garden–one of carefully groomed sand and positioned rock rather than flora. Around the temple are paintings, simple, intentional strokes. As the crowds heat up I try and use the click-click-click of cameras around as bells of mindfulness.  I walk as gingerly as possible on the veranda that circles the center rooms, lined with tatami, minimalist and stoic.

Daitokuji is a temple complex that, at midday, was nearly abandoned. I find out soon that it’s because many temples are closed to visitors this day but I don’t mind. I enjoy walking in the peaceful confines of the complex and tour just one, said to be the oldest Zen temple in Japan. As I walk toward the exit I hear a sound coming from one of the temples. I realize after sitting a while it’s a monk chanting.

One night later, I settle in at the low table in the common room in my lodging with a sashimi bowl I bought at a beautiful department store food market in the center of town. I’m content to eat alone. The owner comes in and asks if I’d like to join in a tea ceremony. Why not? It turns out it’s a practice session for a student of the owner who is training to lead tea ceremonies. Also in the room, already seated, is a woman who is unbelievably poised. I quickly realize it is her responsibility to make sure I know what I’m doing, beginning with sitting in a way that won’t exhaust me.

The student goes through the choreographed process of cleaning the tea instruments using water heated from a central hearth. We’re served a small, seasonal treat. In this case a sort of mochi with strawberry. The woman guides me in cutting the treat in half using a special metal knife, then using a designated paper to wipe off the tool and wipe it off.

To everything there is a right (and wrong) process. I watch as the student tries his hardest to get it right before the owner reminds him of the correct process. At last, the tea. The woman is served hers after frantic whisking makes it foam. She drinks it in three to four sips, as is expected. She wipes off the edge she drank from and returns it to the student. He prepares my cup and I follow her lead.At the end, I’m walked through the bowing and giving thanks before exiting the room.

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