Students have been asked to submit blog posts each day we are in Kyoto. Ray Lounsbury begins by giving us an overview of Wednesday’s excursion.
Raymond E. Lounsbury
Today our group spent the day visiting a bamboo forest, Kinaku-ji and Ryoanji Temples, all of which were very powerful experiences. We started by exploring the bamboo forest which was adjacent to a cemetery with train tracks running through the middle. Japanese graves are very different from those found in the west. There was no grass and the tombs were raised about a quarter foot off the ground and all had equally large markers which were made from stone or wood with the exception of a very large one in the center which was likely for someone who was of high social status. A carriage service was offered that would take people though the forest. Many people were fascinated by the busy railroad that went through the center. A train passed about every two minutes.
After exploring the forest I ate a roadside lunch consisting of noodles and octopus dumplings. Many people had ice cream or a snow cone for dessert. Having finished, two of my fellow students joined me to walk to the Buddhist Zen garden while the others waited for a bus. To our amazement, we arrived at exactly the same time. The Zen garden had a lobby where people would remove their shoes and display tickets. Around the corner were two lowered platforms where the gardens sat. The first resembled an ocean with a few islands in it. The stones were raked horizontially in flawless lines. Guests sat on the edge and meditated. The other garden was full of moss and trees resembling a rainforest. Not as many people were gathered here. Both locations were equally relaxing as I let my mind go and enjoyed the smell of incense. The Buddhist temple also featured a massive coy pond and lots of foot trails through the woods. This serene environment clearly embraced the Buddhist model of peace, reaction and simply letting go. It was easy to be in the moment and only focus on the self.
Lastly, we went to Kinaku-ji temple which was on a beautiful lake surrounded by lots of plant life and trails. The temple is constructed of wood and is completely covered in gold leaf. Hundreds of people were lined up on the opposite bank to take photos. I must have been asked 15 times to take someone’s picture. People were able to walk around the temple but not go inside. Only a handful of high ranking officials have been able to enter. There was a large gift shop and tea house that people could enjoy. It was clear this was very formal setting, because everything was kept spotless and well-dressed employees gave guided tours.
We have learned much about Japanese aesthetics over our time in Japan. Many aspects of these aesthetics are drawn from nature. Yesterday, we went to a bamboo forest and I noticed something that seemed very familiar. I have seen this plant depicted in many different pieces of art in my time here from kimonos to ceramics. The abstraction of nature is often used as an aspect of Japanese aesthetics. Mono-no-aware, the idea that the impertinence of thing is beautiful, is also commonly found in art taken from scenes of nature. A common use of mono-no-aware is depicting the same scene four times once during each season to show how much it changes. Closely related to mono-no-aware is an appreciation for a naturally rustic look. This is often used in stoneware pottery to create perfectly imperfect art. Walking around in parks, I have noticed how wildly and asymmetrical trees grow round here. Asymmetry is yet another aspect of esthetic design that has been taken from observing nature in Japan.
Today was our first day in Kyoto and we went to the bamboo grove at Arashiyama and walked around. I always wanted to see the bamboo here. We found a little temple there which had this moss garden on the inside that caught my attention. It had a rustic old little bridge there, with a one flower growing out of the stones underneath the bridge. This, to me, seemed to capture the essence of wabi-sabi. The empty space of moss around it seemed to capture the wabi, the imperfection, and the ma, the negative space, giving it a sense of incompleteness. The subtlety of that calmed me. I stopped for a minute and it seemed that all the suffering in my life was put on hold.
At the Ryoanji Rock Garden
Ryoan-ji (Ryoan Temple) encapsulates several aspects of Japanese design and aesthetics, even when you only look at its famous rock garden. First and foremost, it exemplifies the many aspects of ma (usually used to mean “an interval in time and space”). The arrangement of larger gray rocks among the smaller white rocks covering the ground of the garden is heavily asymmetric; the smaller white rocks and larger gray rocks are used as “negative space” in contrast to the patches of green grass sitting underneath the large gray rocks; and, (appropriately) much like the Buddhist concept of mushin (emptiness), very little of the garden was occupied by anything other than the white rocks. The rock garden also is deeply steeped in a sense of shibui (lit. “astringent”, but used to mean “subtle, refined beauty”). There is no sense of ostentatiousness or “loudness”; instead, the garden possesses only subtle amounts of color, and does not call attention to the most detail oriented pieces of its design, like the patterns raked into the smaller rocks by the monks each day.
The Ryoanji Temple was such a beautiful experience, I have never witnessed Japanese architecture like that before with so much meaning to it and so much effort and time put into each thing that was created. I also was amazed about how much they represent what they believe in by portraying it in their art and things that they build. What intrigued me the most was a unique wash-basin of stone or named “Tsukuabi.” Each time I go to a Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple, I see this symbolic fountain that people pray with and drink from, which is a very interesting purification ritual. But the “Tsukubai” at Ryoanji is made with amazing stone that is shaped in a perfect way along with the 4 Japanese characters as well. The four characters have a Zen Buddhism type of feel to it, and the saying on the stone translates to “I learn only to be contented” or he who learns to be contented is the one that is rich in spirit and within himself. Even if you are very rich you are still poor if you are not content. I learned that the topic of being content or at peace is very important to the Zen spirit. This relates to everything we have been learning about Japanese aesthetics and culture as a whole.
Today we went to visit the Ryoan-ji Zen Garden. The entire complex from the rock garden to the koi pond exuded Wabi, Sabi, and of course Zen. From the moment you walk into the complex everything around you encourages you to leave your worldly detachments behind for the simplicity and purity of nature. This nature that is all around you is fleeting and ever changing so you need to pay attention in order to see its beauty. For example the koi in the pond are beautiful, but they are constantly moving and changing positions so that they will never be in the exact some positions again. I loved the koi! I could have spent all day watching them. For me watching koi swim around in a pond is like sitting at a rock garden. I feel at peace, I am able to empty my mind of all thought and just appreciate the beauty around me. It is a truly wonderful feeling.
Today we went to many different temples but the one that stood out too me the most was the one with the Zen garden at Ryoan-Ji. I liked this one because of the garden/ meditation area, and also the gardens surrounding it with fountains and a pond with koi and other animals. I also loved walking through the winding bamboo paths at the other temple.
In Kyoto so far I have seen a lot of the embodiment of Japanese aesthetics. Buildings, temples and shrines are surrounded by the peaceful nature of Japanese beauty. For example in the reading it talks about how these two Japanese princes constructed parts of Kyoto and were careful about the detail and sensitive about the material they used and where to put these places. When in Ryoanji Temple, the Zen Garden and the Temple complimented each other. The temple looks over a Zen garden and therefore when you look out from both sides of the temple I see jimi (somber and proper beauty) with the Zen garden. It is elegant in a way that pleases the eye, mind and soul of the person. In keeping with ideas of what proper beauty is, everything compliments each other. For example everything in the Zen Garden was natural colors from whites, brown, blacks and greys they all balanced out in different shades. The Zen Garden had a sabi feeling to it because it was just a lot of rocks in a pattern that was abstract and looked lonely. On the other side of the Zen garden if you walk around the temple you will see a transition between rocks and little garden. When you see the garden you automatically think of hade (bright and exuberant beauty) because when you turned the corner everything was so lush and green that was bursting with different colors of green. Also this part was wabi, because it has a rustic old look to it with all the trees, little pond and a wash-basin of a stone and compared to the Zen garden.
At the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji)
Kinkakuji (The Golden Pavilion)/Rokuon-ji Temple is located in Kyoto of Japan. As the name suggests, the upper two levels of the temple are covered in gold leaf over lacquer. There’s also a phoenix covered with gold at the top of the shingled roof. Each level is built in a different style: the first level is built in the shinden style, which was popular during the 11th century imperial aristocracy; the second level is in the buke style of the warrior aristocracy; and the top level is in the Chinese zenshu-butsuden style. I found it interesting and eye opening to visit the gold temple, as it was a unique experience. It made me wonder how the Muromachi period (1337-1573) built the temple and how they were able to place each gold leaf in its place. I had never seen a temple covered with gold. Aesthetically, I appreciated both its very rustic features, as time has evolved because of its age, as well as how flamboyant the temple looks, covered with gold. It plays with the idea of nature abstracted because it’s contrasted by the big pond, the garden, and trees, giving the effect of solidarity. Inside the temple suggests emptiness Finally, the temple is elegant, beautifully designed and surrounded by nature. It embodies so many of the aesthetic principles we have been studying.
No photo can capture the essence of what the beautiful Kinkaku-ji temple looks like. It might of been a cloudy day, but being in the moment is never dull when seeing beautiful and historic things. The temple sits on an island surrounded by lily padded water, and bonsai trees. I feel as if it would be a 1000 times prettier in cherry blossom season, but that just means I need to visit again. (click the link below for a beautiful photo of the temple that Katie took.)
Yesterday was a day filled with amazing sights. The bamboo grove was so peaceful and serene; I really enjoyed being able to walk through it and just let the scale of these giant plants wash over me. The Golden Pavilion was also a majestic sight—seeing it shining in the sun was awe inspiring. There were also lots of school children at the Golden Pavilion who wanted to practice their English with visiting tourists. They were really embarrassed at having to talk to a native English speaker, but I found that overall their English was very good. So far I think I enjoy Kyoto more than Tokyo because of all the historical buildings and culture that is here.
After reading about all the Japanese art forms and different cultural values, it is almost impossible not to see the integration of the two where ever you go. At one of the temples yesterday, I saw this sculpture which I thought was the epitome of Japanese values blended into an art piece. There is the idea of everyone working together to make a whole society while maintaining a hierarchy of deference to elders and those who have higher positions than you. The different levels in the sculpture represent that social structure, but every piece is balanced and holding together to create a whole which is able to withstand time.
Finally, students are noticing the principles of Japanese art and aesthetics even as they wander through department stores.
During our stroll through the Takashimaya mall we encountered rows upon rows of intricately crafted bowls and other ceramic pottery that were painted decoratively and often quite expensive. The prices ranged from 3,000 yen to 30,000 yen, with the latter often being comprised of fine lacquerware detailed with opulent gold designs. Even the cheaper bowls exemplified the aesthetic tenets of Japanese art and principles of creating something both functional and visually pleasing. The cheaper bowls capture the essence of Wabi-Sabi exceptionally. The colors are earthy and organic in tone and evoke an aged, natural quality. There is imperfection and asymmetry to the details on the surface and the shape of the bowls themselves that displays the age-old aesthetic Japanese concerns of controlled imperfection and “mono no aware”—the beauty of impermanence and the passing of time. The bowls are hand-spun with form and function both being held in equal esteem. The beauty of the object is connected to the idea that it will actually be used and degrade over time, although minimally. This means that the bowl you use each time is slightly different than the last and you are having a new and enriching present experience each time you drink or eat out of it. The present experience and interaction is heightened/beautiful because of its uniqueness and eventual passing.
Finally, a few pictures from Thursday’s trip to Kiyomizu Temple. As long as we have reliable wi-fi tomorrow we hope to post student reflections on that trip along with the tea ceremony experience.
Photos by C. Herbert