Running water joined the cicadas’ constant call as we walked past the centuries-old pavilion. Ornate tapestries hung inside while a serene pond beckoned us to sit, relax, and think. Lichen covered several boulders along the surrounding slope, and some of the trees’ leaves had begun to change color. The same scene would have been incredible with an autumnal foliage backdrop, or blanket of snow, or with Spring’s many blossoms bursting with color. We were there in late summer, and the heat and humidity could not stifle the calming beauty of the Tenryuji Temple.
The Zen temple was originally built in 1339, though fires and wars caused the wooden aspects to be rebuilt multiple times. The current structures date to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but the garden has maintained its original form since its creation. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and served as our introduction to classic Japanese architecture. We immediately fell in love.
A short subway and train ride from our apartment had us in Arashiyama district in western Kyoto. Immediately upon exiting the train station, you feel the difference from downtown. The approach to the temple led us along a broad sidewalk, past lily ponds and gates opening to beautiful gardens. Some gardens were possible to walk through, while others merely offered a glimpse inside. Both options were readily accepted, as each was lovely.
Visitors may either pay to walk through the gardens, inside the buildings, or both. We opted to see it all and entered the gardens first so we could see it without the tour bus throngs we knew would soon arrive. We started to follow a path around the perimeter of the garden when I spotted the pond and we changed course. At that time there were only several other groups of visitors, and I thought of my idea of the Zen garden ideal. The feeling evoked by being in that place was enough to want more. It soaked up all other thoughts and simply allowed me to be in that moment, thankful for the exact location we found ourselves.
Gravel crumpled underfoot as we meandered through the grounds. The garden isn’t expansive, but the layout allows you to feel lost in your own world. Even when others are visible, it’s easy to feel solitude. The trees absorb the other sounds, cicadas constantly make their presence known, and you have your own piece of the world.
One tree stood at the top of one trail. Its branches stood higher than the others, and the sun illuminated its uppermost leaves. The dark branches were silhouetted against the rising sun, softly swaying over a set of stairs. A bamboo forest nudged the opposite side of the trail. Another couple climbed the trail and we moved on, allowing them the same experience as us.
When we returned to the pond, it was significantly busier. We found a place to sit on the wooden deck of the temple and enjoyed the view for several minutes before entering the temple. It is customary to remove your shoes in most Japanese buildings, and the smooth wooden planks felt nice beneath our socked feet. The intricate details of the construction were even more impressive up close. Viewing the grounds from inside was like looking at a screen of what someone created as a calming background. The smaller viewing area created by the doorways and openings made it seem more removed and less real, an idyllic landscape in addition to the peaceful structures.
The pond had several small streams running into and out of it. One of them came from the hills, while another passed through the temple grounds. Although it provided the pleasant sound we heard when we first entered the garden as it tumbled into the water, we didn’t see its source then. Here it was. A grass and moss lawn blanketed the area between two structures. Trees and rocks popped up here and there. The stream was about one foot wide and only a couple inches deep; its bed was smooth rock. It wasn’t clear if the water had cut a path through the dirt to the hard rock beneath, or if the builders had created this stream bed centuries ago. The smooth bottom allowed the water to flow nearly silently; occasionally babbles would remind you it was moving. It could easily be overlooked, as the wooden walkway goes past only en route to another building. This tucked away corner, in plain sight, was my favorite part of the gardens, a shady respite from the photo taking crowds.
Just outside the north gate of the temple lies Arashiyama Bamboo Forest. It is a wildly popular spot for social media photos, and we had both seen images of it before we arrived in Japan. The pictures look incredible, and visiting the forest was the highest thing on my list of things to do in Kyoto. Glimpsing the dark interior from inside the temple grounds only fueled my excitement, as did the pathway leading to it.
I grew up on a creek in Kentucky. Playing and exploring the woods behind our house filled many days and was a favorite pastime. I love moving water and trees, which helps explain my affinity for the stream on the temple grounds and the degree to which I looked forward to the forest. Bamboo grew on the creek behind our house, and we even transplanted some to our yard. But this bamboo was different.
Most stalks were several inches in diameter and easily fifty feet high. The ground was clear of undergrowth and instead covered in the slender fallen bamboo leaves. High above, the blazing sun illuminated the canopy to cast a green glow below. The light was shade and bright at the same time and created a magical environment. This was a bamboo forest!
Although the path through the forest was relatively crowded, it was easy to immerse yourself in the bamboo. Simply peer into the growth and you were transported away from the crowds and chatter to a world of wonder and solitude. This effect has always been a magical feeling – to be alone in nature no matter who else is there. At times it makes no sense, at others it seems impossible, but this is the power of putting down the distractions to become part of your surroundings. I occasionally must remind myself of this, but it is always worth the effort.
We took the long way out of the forest. Walking along the edges of it provided an even stronger sense of its pull. It seemed to appear out of nowhere, to rise up in the midst of the more traditional forest, each side testing the boundaries but working seamlessly with the other. We would come to recognize these same pockets all along the countryside while zooming by in a bullet train or meandering along streets and paths.
Bamboo sprouts from the root instead of a seed, so it is understandable how these pockets claim their space. Their place in the world showed the possibility to thrive where you may seem unwanted, to grow where you are seemingly an outsider. At some point, the lines are blurred; you’re simply part of the whole, and your spot would seem barren with your absence.
Both Zen temples and bamboo forests attempt to encourage meditation and inward reflection. The tranquility of each allowed our minds to wander with our feet. Tenryuji Temple and the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest proved to be a great start to our day and were highlights of our time in Japan.
Check out our video to join us in these peaceful places and all our Kyoto fun!
© Cheers Life Partners 2017