In Fair Kyoto Where We Lay Our Scene

Posted by on Dec 16, 2011 in Kyoto, Travel Volunteer Journey | No Comments
In Fair Kyoto Where We Lay Our Scene

Zen Meditation

It’s fair to say I’ve got a lot on my mind at the moment. Our great Japanese adventure is drawing to a close. The unmanageably massive question of “what next?” needs to be answered. I have an impending job interview. I don’t yet know what I’m going to get my mother for Christmas. And so on and so forth. These are all matters than need my immediate consideration and yet this morning, sitting on a cold temple floor, I was being asked to empty my mind completely. It’s quite hard to feel serenity when hysteria is required; why have peace when panic will do?

Even so, Katy and I sat with our monk host Join Teramae and started our meditation session, trying to ignore the mild discomfort in our legs and instead focus on our breathing. And the floor.

Looking at a tatami mat for a long time causes strange optical illusions. For me it started with tunnel vision and quickly evolved into a huge pixelated screen, with little boxes flashing different colours until I looked at them directly at which point they became disappointingly ordinary. Katy saw shapes that looked like owls forming, then dancing.

My thoughts then turned – and don’t ask me why – to space. Specifically, travelling to Mars: it’s like a big red version of the Antarctic Plateau, but even colder. There’s no point in trying to colonise Mars, better to have it as a filling station en route to somewhere beyond. Actually, now they’ve found traces of water, perhaps there were once plants on Mars. That’d mean that there’s almost certainly oil now – perhaps it’s a ready-made petrol station? That would make a good April fool, pretending that a sinister oil company was sending a prospecting mission to Mars. It might annoy the permanently outraged buffoons at Fox News, but then so do the Muppets.

It was a strange few minutes, that’s for sure, but it was genuinely nice to have some time to ourselves, even if we did seem to be on the brink of madness.

Then a chime rang, two irritatingly loud blocks were clapped together and the session was over. But not for long. We were asked empty our minds completely this time, which struck me as starting down a dangerous path. Actually when the monk said that, I started to think of the recently departed Christopher Hitchens’s warning about the perils of this kind of thing: “[Buddhists] may think they are leaving the realm of despised materialism, but they are still being asked to put their reason to sleep, and to discard their minds along with their sandals.”

This time the monk patrolled the room with an enormous stick, and, if we were having trouble concentrating, he would kindly whack us with it. To me this seemed like it would probably be more of a hindrance than any kind of help, so I ignored him. Katy, though, volunteered, bowing her head to expose her back to the blows (they didn’t hurt as much as the thudding sound suggested).

It put me in mind of an old Chemistry teacher at one of my former schools. Almost certainly insane, he would patrol his class with a wooden ruler, occasionally smashing it on tables when he felt the class weren’t sufficiently afraid of him. Thoughts of him led me to consider my recent thoughts about becoming a teacher, which then in turn led me back to thinking about my interview and the future as a whole.

Empty headed? I don’t think my mind has been more active for a long time.


Woodblock Printing

Part of the wider world’s perception of Japan comes from its artwork, specifically the very distinct process of wood-block printing. Hokusai’s 36 Views of Fuji are perhaps the most famous example of the technique that is synonymous with Japan. Of course, you won’t be surprised to hear that this had long been a Chinese practise before it skipped over the sea and came to Japan, but somehow the parent country has been left behind. It may have only been here for 300 years or so, but now wood-block printing is, for all intents and purposes, Japanese.

The core concept is extremely simple. Most children in the UK are familiar with potato-printing: carving a spud to a certain shape, dipping it in paint, then plopping it on a page. Well wood-block printing is essentially a much-elevated version of that. Several pieces of wood are delicately carved, then painted with water-based colours to create a shape on the paper. The work is moved along a line of these blocks adding more details and colour to the piece. For example at En-Ya, Katy’s rather excellent geisha started as a pair of red lips, before gaining yellow flowers in her hair, a blue kimono and finally a detailed face.

As tends to be the case with these things, what had looked to our casual eyes as a simple prints suddenly became intimidatingly complex, and the fine art versions quite impossible.


Kabuki Theatre

We finished our day by going to see a kabuki performance at the historic Minamiza Theatre. Now, as it’s older than the United States of America, it’d be wrong for me to say that kabuki is not very good. I’ve only got about two hours of the traditional form of play to go on after all. Plus, the huge, ornate costumes are really superb pieces of work.

And without any English translation, it was impossible to follow what was going on. This wasn’t like watching a rubbish movie, but we were consoled by the fact that the locals had a hard time keeping up too. This was partly because A) kabuki is performed in an old-style Japanese, something equivalent to Shakespearean English, and B) because so many of them were asleep. At one point in the middle of the second story (kabuki is a collection of several stories that go on for over four hours) there were 12 people sleeping – just in our row! There was undoubtedly something soporific in the air because even the hawk-like ushers nodded off. And even when the crowd were conscious, in the two hours we were there, there were only five smatterings of applause and two mumurations of laughter.

So while there were undoubtedly subtleties that were lost on us and the snoozing masses, we didn’t think kabuki was particularly great value, with tickets stretching to several thousand yen. Instead, our recommendation is to head round to Kyoto Ninja, a preposterous themed restaurant. I’m not sure any of the staff are particularly deadly, nor do I believe that bungled card and disappearing-hanky tricks are traditional ninja practises. But the food was genuinely delicious (and ninja-themed) and, more importantly, it was really great fun.

Our time in Kyoto prefecture was made possible by:

The ever dependable Hotel Granvia who supported us again and again throughout the trip. Our final stay with them was in their flagship hotel in Kyoto city centre and it was spectacular indeed: complete with swimming pool, huge rooms and superlative views across the city. Also, we’d like to extend a special thanks to Yuka Murata who welcomed us to the hotel, and acted as a translator this morning – not to mention photographer for the shot of us above.

Our friend and master chef Keisuke Ito, who despite hosting us once before, saw fit to do it again at his Itoh Dining Kyoto outlet. Again the food was all fantastic, but the wine and steak absolutely sensational. Quite what we’re going to do when someone offers us a mediocre cut of beef when we get home, we do not know.

Our guide Iris Chiyoma who we had fun with as we dashed between temples and shrines across the city. She was an unending well of information on this great city, but genuinely good company too. Not only that, but rather than push posh food on us, was happy to show us the way to the nearest gyoza shop. A very intuitive, very nice lady.

Mr Join Teramae of the Kodaiji temple, our host, guide and meditation leader during our brief stay. We have a strong feeling he let us have an hour or two longer in bed than is normal before morning meditation. If that’s the case, we are eternally grateful.

Having been carrying a 7kg backpack of camera gear for almost 18 months solid now, it’s fair to say Katy’s tiny frame is in tatters. The kind people at Nagomi knew this and offered her a much-needed massage to try and alleviate her aches and pains. It works. And now, thanks to their advice, Katy is banned from carrying the bag, much to her annoyance.

The Rihga Royal hotel, who hosted us for the third time. Amazing generosity, especially as they are normally so busy. For our final stay, they very kindly gave us a sprawling two-room suite. We just wish we had a little more time to enjoy it all.

Everyone at En-ya for letting us have a hands-on lesson in wood block printing. And for not laughing at our wildly inaccurate first attempts.

The hilariously entertaining Ninja Kyoto restaurant. Normally with themed restaurants there’s a trade off: the more that’s spent on costumes, the cheaper and nastier the food becomes. Not here: even if you took away the labyrinth and the stealthy staff, it’d be a stand out. Great stuff.






鐘が鳴り座禅の時間は終了した。だがその直後に、再び無心になるように指示を受けた。ご住職様にそう言われ、私はなぜだか、つい先日他界したChristopher Hitchensの“仏教徒は居眠りの言い訳として座禅をするのだ”といった言葉を思い出していた。









まぁ私達は、歌舞伎を見に行くより、NINJA KYOTOというレストランに行く事をお勧めする。そこで働いている人が本物の忍者だとは思わないし、マジック・チケットが伝統的な忍者の術だとも思わないが、とにかくお料理の味は最高だったし、とにかく楽しいひと時を過ごせたからだ!





高台寺 岡林院・月真院のご住職様、寺前浄因さん、お世話になりありがとうございました。宿泊先をご提供下さったのみならず、座禅の体験もさせて下さいました。しかも通常の朝のお勤めの時間よりもずっと遅くに座禅をさせて下さったのではないかという気がしていいます。もしそうだったとしたら・・・本当にありがとうございました!




最高のテーマレストランNINJA KYOTOさん。一般的にテーマレストランは、そのユニークさとか衣装などばかりが先に立ち、サービスやお料理にはがっかりさせられる事が多いのですが、ここは全く逆!最高のお料理と最高のサービスが味わえる最高に楽しいレストランでした。本当にありがとうございました。