Whenever I set foot inside Kyoto, I find myself abandoning daily rituals and replacing them with traditions that capture the charm of traditional Japanese aesthetic. For example, I abandon my “ritual” of morning coffee for a more “centering” experience with a cup of loose-leaf sencha or a bowl of vigorously whisked matcha—a beverage that brings to mind intricate tea ceremonies with one sip.
Even the simple act of walking becomes an act of wonder, if not “walking meditation.” Each step brings me closer to uncovering the beauty of understated machiyas (traditional wooden townhouses), unsuspected miniature Shinto shrines (hokora) housing small Jizo statues, and an abundance of old residential buildings that have been converted into cafes and craft shops featuring an array of wabi-sabi-esque souvenirs. These very details that define the atmosphere of Japan’s ancient capital (formerly known as Heian-kyo from 794 to 1869) are what fill the wanderer with a newfound sense of mindfulness—a conscious awakening that one is trekking upon sacred land that has been harmoniously preserved in the present and across time.
But let’s rewind back to the beginning of my first solo trip to my favorite city that has sparked a love affair with its incredible Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. Invited to participate in a tour of Sanzen-in Temple nestled in the rural town of Ohara, I caught the Tokaido Shinkansen from Tokyo Station and was soon Kyoto-bound. While scrolling through my playlist, I started listening to a gotochi song (“local” to a city or prefecture) titled “Onna Hitori” (「女ひとり」 which literally translates to “Woman Alone”). The melancholic lyrics describe a woman who, having grown tired of love, seeks refuge for her broken heart at three famous temples—the lyrics opening with the imagery of Ohara Sanzen-in Temple.
After climbing the cobblestone steps and arriving at the gigantic wooden gates, I could grasp why the landscape of this famed temple could inspire a ballad of such dream-like serenity. While it’s a popular spot for fall foliage, the early spring scenery of plum blossoms flowering among bare tree branches was an alluring contrast—that limbo between winter and spring, if you will. A monk, who also served as our guide, escorted our tour group through the moss-covered garden inside the temple walls.
We first entered a tatami-floored room called “Gyokuza-no-ma” (gyokuza meaning “throne”). While upon first glance it appeared to be a typical Japanese-style room (washitsu), our guide directed our attention to an elevated “seat” that was facing a beautiful garden of mature cedar and maple trees in a blanket of luxuriant moss. Because Sanzen-in was once a monzeki temple—temples headed by priests reigning from the imperial family—this room previously served as the Emperor’s private sitting space overlooking the serene Yuseien Garden (Garden of Pure Presence).
Our guide revealed that the best way to enjoy a Japanese garden is from a single, seated perspective. However, he paradoxically added that a garden should not only be enjoyed with one’s eyes, but also form a lasting impression in one’s heart. The monk’s advice resonated with me throughout the trip. It was a powerful reminder of how the act of living in the now could be the very answer to the art of life—“Present moment, perfect moment” as one renowned Zen master poetically puts (Thich Nhat Hanh).
After savoring the sanctity and cessation of the garden oasis, our group relocated to another building situated among the forest floor—the Ojo Gokuraku-in (Temple of Rebirth in Paradise), where we would attend a Buddhist hymnal performance (shomyo) practiced since the 9th century. Having attended Catholic school for 9 years, I’ve had my fair share of monophonic Gregorian chants (with Masters of Chants being an occasional guilty pleasure). However, my ears weren’t expecting the melodic sound patterns that were nothing less than otherworldly and gave rise to a hypnotic atmosphere. Coincidentally, the Swiss Ambassador, who was also participating in the tour, approached me after the performance to say that I appeared “in a trance.” Perhaps my “trance-like-state” could be attributed to sitting right below three looming larger-than-life statues of Buddhist deities. The central figure was a seated Amida Buddha alongside two attendants sitting not cross-legged, but rather on their heels, as if ready to descend to Earth and guide souls back to heaven.
The collective “trance-inducing” stir of the night was a 9-course kaiseki dinner (the haute couture of Japanese cuisine) that was as meticulously prepared and artfully presented as the meditative gardens housed within the temple grounds. Even third generation kaiseki chef, Takuji Takahashi of Kinobu, admitted to drawing inspiration from nature and paying homage to the shift in seasons. The subtle flavors and delicate garnishes—from winter crustaceans to quintessential spring vegetables like takenoko (bamboo shoots)—were served and savored in an intimate setting of perfect strangers. The sensory dining experience concluded in a crescendo with a night viewing of the Bankan-en, a framed garden landscape that certainly lived up to its name as “difficult to leave.”
Likewise, the same can be said about Kyoto—a city that I return to time and time again. It’s a well-preserved sanctuary where you can grow not only increasingly intimate with your surroundings and thoughts, but also with yourself. Therefore, you’re never actually alone—let alone a “Women Alone”—so, until we meet again, Kyoto, you can be sure I’ll be humming that tune from time to time!
Man, how transcendent. You weave good words. I love Kyoto and their temples and shrines myself (my favorite are 三十三間堂 and伏見稲荷). you seemed have had such elevated tour. I wish for such chance in future. Keep on keeping on.
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Great article! I have never been to Japan but really need to go. I have a somewhat random question. I assume the cities in Japan have municipal parks? I just want to know how awesome the parks are compared to here. I basically have a neighborhood park with a sidewalk in a big circle. I just think with the value Japan places on gardens and temples, their parks would be laid out in a much more beautiful fashion.