Grey torrents of rain
engulf the dim world below —
yet above the clouds
the full moon reigns, defended
by the spearpoints of the stars
Drinking tea last Tuesday evening, a book on Japan called to mind one of my personal symbols: the hexagon, which for the Japanese represents (I think) the shell of a turtle. I wondered if the symbol had any other connotations, so I looked it up online. I didn’t find much, however, save a mention of Rokkaku-dō, the birthplace of ikebana, a hexagonal Buddhist temple said to represent the exact centre of Kyōto. Prince Shōtoku supposedly established the temple in 587, prophesying that the Imperial capital would one day be built on the site. I made a mental note to visit the place one day.
My visit took place much sooner than expected. On Thursday evening I won a free plane ticket to Ōsaka’s Kansai Airport, on the condition that I fly on Thursday evening and return on Saturday afternoon. A journey of some ten thousand kilometres in all, unusual for a day trip. I took it anyway. And on Friday morning I found myself standing in the grounds of Rokkaku-dō itself, after an additional ninety minutes by train from the airport to Kyōto.
There was plenty of legroom on the plane, with nobody beside me; and when I arrived in Ōsaka the airport’s SaintMarc bakery surprised me with the very civilized quality of its coffee. Then it was time for the train, an express ride through the tidy Kansai countryside amid some of the most beautiful cold sunlight in the world. There must be something about the North Pacific Ocean: the most beautiful mornings in the world are without a doubt those to be found in Japan and Northern California.
dozing in the sun,
lines of rust-red tracks stretch out
on rough gravel beds
Kyōto was a lovely quiet town. The buildings drab and unassuming in the typical Japanese manner, punctuated here and there by old traditional houses, or machiya. Half an hour’s walk up Karasuma-dōri from the train station brought me to Rokkaku-dō; in this I was assisted by the goody bag I’d been given at the start of my journey, which unaccountably contained a map of Kyōto instead of a map of Ōsaka.
The temple was small and quiet in the morning, with only a few curious visitors good-naturedly lighting incense, ringing the gong, and bowing to Kannon. Pigeons dozing on rooftops; carp and swans in the pond. Petitions swayed on the branches of the willow tree. A caretaker was clearing away used candles; old men were taking a break from the cold in the gift shop. At the back of the temple there was a direct entrance into the commercial building next door. A Starbucks outlet was two doors down. And in the middle of all that, me, rather bemused, wondering at the turn of events that had brought me over a quarter of the globe to this peaceful little temple. I made a donation, lit a stick of incense, rang the gong, put my hands together and bowed. Why am I here?, I asked. The statue smiled its inscrutable smile.
idiot that I am,
crossing seas to ask questions
I could ask at home
silent solitary men
hide their loneliness
in grey pages of newsprint
and the flicker of phone screens
After lunch I strolled down Gojō-dōri from Karasuma, taking in the little stores that sell pottery and teaware around Wakamiya Hachimangu Shrine (where a shrine to the god of pottery also resides). I’ve brought back an unlined tetsubin kettle — hard to find, outside of Japan — and restocked my supply of kabuse, and am looking forward to trying both when I have time for tea later this week. And then I stopped to look out at the ducks and egrets on the Kamo River; some carp were visible too, grey, huge, as big as the ducks. Two ducks crashed into each other as I watched, and started to chase each other playfully. Onwards again after that, up the hill to Kiyomizu-dera, a World Heritage Site known for its wish-granting spring water, nailless construction, love stones, and beautiful scenery. It was filled with Japanese students who seemed very interested indeed in finding luck, finding love, and taking cutesy photos. I decided to avoid them and looked out at the hills instead. Strange how green everything still is, though it’s already early November. I guess the trees here shed their leaves all at once.
Though it’s November, wild flowers are blooming;
foliage throngs the verdant woods still,
almost as if the seasons aren’t moving.
Fall’s only sign: the air’s deepening chill.
How much longer before ginkgo and maple
blaze forth in brightness to combat the cold?
Too bad I’ll miss it. Yet at the right angle,
sunlight can still turn these forests to gold.
It started to get cold after I left Kiyomizu-dera: the light growing dim, a breeze making its way among the slopes and townhouses. So I stepped for warmth into a tiny museum in one of the machiya, called Kiyomizu Sannenzaka. It was well I did. Machiya are small, only about the same size as our two-storey shophouses back home; but this one housed the single finest collection of Japanese metalwork and maki-e lacquerware I have seen anywhere in the world. I have known and loved these crafts for years, and own a few modest pieces myself; but the works gathered here far surpassed the upper limits of anything I have ever seen, even in prestigious museum collections. Photography wasn’t allowed, but perhaps that was just as well: no photograph could have possibly done those pieces justice, could have accurately captured the glowing hues of metal, the depths of perfect lacquer, the textured sheen of gold. The Satsuma bowls on the second floor were particularly extraordinary, with their trademark tiny butterflies so small and close together that they looked like a single golden surface from any distance greater than a foot and a half. It was the closest I came in Kyōto to a transcendent experience.
now heaven descends —
countless tiny butterflies
pave the world in gold
Walking back from Gion in the dark — up along Higashiōji-dōri, east of the river — I thought Kyōto to be rather a quiet provincial town: most shops closed and only a few people out and about, hands in their pockets, on bicycles. Dimness of streetlamps, people minding their own business. But then I crossed the Kamo again, via the bridge at Sanjō, and found myself suddenly in the Kawaramachi shopping district: blazing lights, thronging crowds, leaflet-givers, shopping malls, girls in high socks and short skirts everywhere. Fast food, chain stores. I spent the night there, among the overnighters in Shijō: men and women, young and old, eating, studying, sleeping, playing cards, waiting out the cold. Till it was time to hurry down the chilly streets at five o’clock in the morning, headed for the train station, pausing only to gaze on the waning moon still high above Higashi-Honganji temple.
Has my face changed much?
Surely not; yet in the hush
here on the platform,
one of my own countrymen
speaks to me in Japanese