Pilgrims in Kyoto
The military plane circled and banked prior to landing to the north of the city of Osaka, about an hour from Kyoto. The cities of Osaka, and Kyoto in the distance, could be seen below, surrounded by verdant, lush greenness. Kyoto was a large valley nestled within the emerald boundaries of the surrounding mountains. Within and around, all of the Japanese cities that I had seen, there existed an abundance of greenery. It was so obvious that the Japanese people appreciated, valued, and accepted nature as an integral part of life. A part of the totality; difficult if not impossible to separate one from the other.
At last I would be experiencing this singular city that, historically and culturally, was the embodiment of Japan. A city rich in so many ways; in painting and sculpture, in Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, in palaces and castles, textiles and pottery, and in gardens - Palace gardens, temple gardens, teahouse gardens, and even small family gardens. According to what I had read Kyoto also contained the one single site that expressed more fully than any other the essential nature of Japan, the ancient Imperial Palace. A quiet, elegant relic of the past amid the shimmering green moss and majestic pine trees; gardens crossed by paths of clean sand and streams of clear water from the surrounding mountains. Rising majestically on one side was Mount Higashi [東山], with its celebrated monuments and on the other, Mount Hiei [比叡山], whose slopes once housed three thousand Buddhist temples, and a number of the most important were still in existence.
Most important was that I would once again be with Gregg. Our time apart had truly seemed like an eternity.
Unlike my previous flight this plane, flying between two major cities, was nearly filled with military personnel. The hierarchical division was again evident. The officers had been assigned the first few rows with the enlisted ranks of sergeants, corporals and privates seated in the rear. Somewhat like a buffer zone, there were two rows of vacant seats between them. The rank of 'Specialist' was a fairly new designation and they still didn't know exactly what to do with us. Another ASA specialist and myself were the only men in the 'buffer zone'. I was on one side of the aircraft with a window seat, and he was on the other. The flight was short and uneventful, though my anticipation of being with Gregg held my pulse in a continual state of acceleration.
As we stepped down from the plane and crossed to the stark air force building which served as the terminal, I was sure that I had seen Gregg's face in one of the windows, but knew that my excitement was no doubt affecting brain as well as vision since the plane from Korea wasn't due for at least an hour or so. We had attempted to time our flights so as to arrive as close to the same time as possible. In any case the reservations had been booked at the military R & R Center in Kyoto and in the case of a delay we had agreed to meet there. But then as I walked in the door I saw him. It really was him, though it was difficult for me to accept it as being reality. It seemed so ridiculous, we were shaking hands- what I really wanted to do was grab and hold him close, but it would hardly have been proper in a military installation. So far neither of us had uttered a word. Then he said, “God, it's good to see you.” At the time those six simple words, and the mere sound of his familiar voice, had the impact of a Bach cantata - absolute perfection of sound and rhythm, and something which touched the very foundations of my soul.
On the military shuttle bus service to Kyoto, Gregg explained that his flight orders had been changed at the last minute and he had been forced to fly out of Pusan a day early. It involved some last minute paperwork, but he smilingly acknowledged that it looked like it had been a fortuitous change. So he had taken the bus into Osaka in order to meet me when I arrived. He also explained that in arriving at the R & R hotel the day before, he'd discovered that not only were we assigned to different rooms but even on different floors.
He must have noticed my slightly dismayed look for he quickly added, "Don't worry, it's all been taken care of. Fortunately the desk clerk, wouldn't you know it, a nice Italian guy by the name of Del Veccio, fixed us up. Oh, by the way, he thinks we're cousins who haven't seen each other in over three years. "
Obviously Gregg had been up to his usual tricks of utilizing the confraternity of "all Italians everywhere" to rearrange his personal reality. I knew that the Slovaks were just as willing to help one another, the only problem being there weren't many of us. During my military service I'd met a couple of Czechs, but not a single Slovak. It appeared that Slovaks were definitely somewhat of a worldwide minority.
As the bus continued on its way towards the hotel I couldn't help but notice that Kyoto had remained completely intact during the war. There was no evidence of any damage since the US air raids had specifically not bombed this city due to its historical significance. I guess what really surprised me was the size of the city and the amount of industry evident. Perhaps I'd been expecting an entire city exactly as it had been in the sixteenth or seventeenth century. Granted, we'd passed a number of large temple completes which seemed to carry the patina of age, and I'd seen an especially tail pagoda in the distance, but it was also a very contemporary urban scene.
We had arrived and the very military sign proclaimed the KYOTO R & R CENTER. Gregg greeted the Corporal at the desk like they'd known each other for years and began joking in Italian. Corporal Mario Dei Veccio took my papers and requested that I sign a couple of military forms. Then, in crisp military fashion, he handed me an information booklet about the rules of the center and information about the city as well as a map. He mentioned that Gregg already had a room key and then gave me another. He additionally gave Gregg a paper with a list of some sort and pointed out that the first name on the list would probably be the best choice. Instead of using the elevator or main staircase, Gregg headed in the direction of a small flight of stairs off to one side. At the first landing there were two signs which, pointing left and right, boldly announced: Authorized Personnel Only and Hotel Administration Staff.
There was an additional small notice which stated that all other military hotel guests should use the main staircase or elevator. Gregg immediately turned left. It seemed that we had somehow become 'Authorized Personnel'. It appeared that Maestro Bartoni had done it again, of course being 'Specialists' and a part of the ASA always helped. As we went down the hall I began to chuckle and by the time Gregg was putting the key in the door, it appeared to be the only one on this wing, my soft, contained laughter was gently echoing in the empty hall.
The door was barely closed before we were in an embrace, which had been the culmination of a year of longing and waiting. At last he said, “This past year has been the longest period of my entire life. It was almost like being sentenced to one of Dante’s most inventive hells. God, I've missed you. You've no idea how empty my life has been without you.”
I responded with, "Me too, cousin." Then finally I saw the great big smile that I'd been expecting and his face became radiant. I finally got around to examining the room. Now this was living. There was an extra large sofa, two comfortable appearing arm chairs, two large beds, gigantic desk, table, bar and small refrigerator - even an automatic coffee pot. The double French doors led out to a small balcony, which overlooked a forested area below and beyond was Mt. Hiei, the most sacred mountain of Kyoto with several monasteries on its slopes. Gregg mentioned that at one time there had been thousands of temples on that single mountain.
Gregg had evidently invited Cpl. Dei Veccio out for a few beers the previous evening and explained that he hadn't seen his 'cousin' for over three years and asked if there was any possibility of our being in the same room. The corporal mentioned that since the center was nearly full, and shifting guys around would be difficult, but that he could give us an unused room, normally reserved for officers. He also explained that it had hardly ever been occupied since the officers now had their own hotel on the other side of town and always stayed there. Mario proceeded to explain that it was also policy to extend all possible assistance to ASA personnel. He then, speaking in Italian, asked Gregg exactly what our work entailed. Gregg replied, like we had all been forced to do many times, that it was something he wasn't allowed to discuss.
In looking around it was evident that everything in the room was almost brand new, it looked as if it had never been used. It was also slightly incongruous. Here we were in one of the oldest cities in Japan, a city that embodied the centuries old traditions of this land, and yet there was little in the room which reflected the Japanese world outside. It could have been a hotel suite in any large city in the US. Most evident was a new bottle of Chivas Regal, which Gregg had provided, and he immediately fixed us a scotch and soda in order to celebrate our good fortune.
A while later we got up, showered, dressed and decided to try the food in the dining room since it was nearing 2:00 and neither of us had even eaten breakfast. Gregg had already mentioned that the dining room was elegant, the menu extensive and the food exquisite. As we sat down I realized once again that this was just like being in one of the best hotels available in the states, the major difference being the Japanese waiters and the fact that we didn't have pay for our food. Gregg had brought a guidebook and map of the city along with him and he began talking about our stay in Kyoto, which according to the book was ‘The Heart of Japan’.
During lunch he explained that he had spent the last few months reading everything he could in relation to the areas we would visit as well as general information about Japan; its history, culture, traditions and especially its literature. He hadn't changed a bit and although I might speak some Japanese, he would obviously act as our guide. But I was mistaken since he had yet another plan.
'On the short flight over from Pusan', Gregg began to explain, “l got to thinking about all there was to see and experience here and realized that probably the best solution would be to get someone to guide us. Specifically someone who knew the city, its environs and hence could help to save us both time and some useless wandering around, as well as time-consuming backtracking.” I remarked that it sounded like a super idea, so all we had to do was to find a guide.
Gregg pulled a slip of paper from his shirt pocket, "I talked about it with Mario last night and he went to work this morning getting a list of possible guides. He felt that our interests would probably be served best by one of the students at the University and in the history or fine arts department. His first suggestion was one of the professors, but they will might be busy with academic preparations". I felt it was a brilliant idea and wondered why my mind didn't function like his.
He lifted his cup of coffee, his eyes glistening, then quietly confided, “I want to see and encounter as much as possible during our time together here, but right now my only desire is just bask in your proximity." Our telepathic communication was functioning exquisitely, since they were precisely my sentiments at that moment
After finishing lunch we went in search of our 'guide'. The first name on the list was a student at the university. Mario had written down his home address, which we gave to the taxi driver. When we arrived at his humble, though immaculate appearing home, Hiroshi was seated outside on the engawa reading a book. He seemed moderately surprised at our arrival, but when we had finished the explanation of our need he appeared more than happy to help us. The dark eyes in his round young face turned into narrow slits as he smilingly suggested that it would also give him a chance to practice his meager English. We soon discovered that he was majoring in Art History, loved literature and it appeared that he had exactly the qualifications we were looking for. He seemed astounded at the sum which we suggested for his services and reluctantly accepted the figure as being more than adequate.
We were soon invited inside to have tea and met his mother, a charming, graceful lady dressed in a plain light summer kimono. Seated on the floor, we continued to talk and Gregg showed Hiroshi our tentative list of places he had picked out. Hiroshi seemed to be impressed by Gregg's thoroughness, and commented that it wouldn’t be possible to visit one of the temples on the list since it had burned down several weeks previously. In discovering that we would only be in Kyoto for ten days he mentioned that it was quite unfortunate since the Kenri-mon, or south gate of the imperial Palace grounds was only open twice a year, in spring and autumn, and the next time would be in two and a half weeks. We then mentioned that the date was perfect since we would be returning to Kyoto after our trip to Kyushu and hence would be able to take advantage of that special occasion. Hiroshi felt that we were very fortunate since much of Kyoto's most important historical past lay within that enormous complex and we could see the opening of the Emperor's special entry to the Palace and we would have access to areas normally closed.
Before leaving Hiroshi asked if we would mind getting up a bit early the following morning since he felt that we should begin our explorations with the most meaningful element in the formation of this ancient city, Zen Buddhism. One of the most important temples was Daisen-in [大泉いん] located in a complex known as the Daitoku-ji [大徳寺] and the services began at sunrise. Also, since his uncle was the head priest of the temple he was sure that he could arrange for us to talk with him later.
Hiroshi had offered to show us the way back to our hotel, but Gregg mentioned that he would first like to go to a bookstore so that he could perhaps find some books of the Japanese language and some on haiku, in English and Japanese if possible. Hiroshi became pensive and then his eyes lit up. Probably the one place where we could find a good selection of books in English was at a store near the Grand Hotel, which catered to foreign tourists and businessmen, who were just beginning to once again visit Japan. He would be more than pleased to accompany us. On the bus ride into the center of town, Hiroshi continued to speak English, and as we were becoming accustomed to his accent, we realized that his grammar was quite good and he had a very adequate vocabulary. It was fortunate that Hiroshi had thought of this particular place since from the front it appeared to be one of the souvenir-gift shops catering to foreigners that we would probably never have entered. They had a sizable number of the books in English, and several that Gregg had been looking for.
It was now nearing evening and we decided to celebrate this first evening of our reunion by having dinner in a traditional restaurant, seated on tatami mats. We invited Hiroshi to join us but he declined explaining that he had a previous commitment. He did suggest that one of the finest in Kyoto was located no more than three blocks away. From the time we entered the Momijikorai, or 'The Ancient Maple' [紅葉古来], removed our shoes and were shown to a small private room, we also stepped back in time. This was the unchanging Japan, which had existed for countless years.
The 'sukiyaki' was prepared at the table on a charcoal brazier by one of the hostesses and was an exquisite combination of thin slices of meat, numerous fresh vegetables and tofu, a nutritious soy product. The various side dishes were composed of artistic arrangements of fresh and pickled vegetables, and steaming fragrant rice; all of which accompanied the meal perfectly. The thin, delicate sake cups were constantly refilled by our charming hostess. Later two young ladies came in to entertain us with music played on the samisen. We had one of the rooms with a view of the inner garden and its enchanting magic permeated the air. A few of the leaves on the delicate Japanese maples were just beginning to change color and their red and golden-orange tones glimmered in the dimly lit night; their leaves seemed to bend and quiver with the hauntingly beautiful music. Our magical tour had truly begun.
It was late when we finally got back to the R & R center and finally turned in. Cuddled close, we once again talked about how charming Hiroshi was and how fortunate it was to have found him. Gregg mentioned that he was already completely enchanted with Japan and would like to stay here forever. I could hear his voice and feel the comfort of his closeness as I, content and exhausted, drifted off to sleep.
We were up well before dawn the next morning and on going down to the hotel entrance we were greeted by Hiroshi, who had been patiently waiting for us. We had neglected to remember that most Japanese were punctual almost to the second.
In the warm darkness, Hiroshi reached into his furoki, a typical Japanese cloth carryall, and handed each of us each a wrapped package. Like all Japanese gifts it was presented formally, gently cupped in both hands and accompanied by slight bow. He had a taxi waiting to take us to our first destination of the day.
During the taxi ride through the early morning, and as we were unwrapping our unexpected gifts, Hiroshi began to explain their significance. They were both beautifully bound books with blank pages. At first a bit baffling. He explained that they were ‘Go Shuin Cho', or 'collection books' and a part of Japan's many traditions. It was customary for pilgrims to carry the books to each of the temples as a way to mark their journey. There they would have their books signed by a temple priest and then it would be stamped with the red stamps, or ‘shuin’ of the temple, a means of collecting, and preserving, memories. We were both very impressed with this thoughtful young man's sensitivity and generosity.
As the taxi left us in front of the large temple complex we noticed the silence. It was still rather dark, but we were accompanied by the first glimmer of light in the sky, which had begun to illuminate the mist on the surrounding mountains. Soft green mountains that, like guardians, surrounded this ancient and venerable city. As we walked along the gravel path we could hear our footsteps clearly, distinctly. We had entered the Zen Buddhist temple compound known as Daisen-in, one of the oldest in this city of ancient buildings, many of which had been given the status of national treasures.
Far off in the distance there was the sound of a single temple bell, deep and resonant. I had previously noted that oriental bells have a harmonious sound quite distinct from occidental bells and are deeper, somehow more profound; as if capable of tapping into a different layer of the human psyche. Then the clear, cool, morning air, scented with the mysterious fragrances encountered only in the orient, was filled with the distant sound of a myriad of temple bells. Buddhist as well as Shinto gods were being summoned to the dawning of a new day. It was announced with solemn dignity, as it had been done in this glorious city for more than eleven centuries.
During the taxi ride on the way to the temple complex, Hiroshi had reiterated what he had mentioned on the previous afternoon. We could not begin to understand this city, or Japan, without starting at the beginning, the influence that Zen Buddhism had on all aspects of Japanese life.
Hiroshi’s uncle, whose last name was Maruyama, greeted us and he led us to the room where he would be offering the morning prayers. The highly polished wooden floors of the passageway gleamed with the shine of many centuries of slippered feet. We passed by an inner courtyard garden with an outstanding example of the 'dry landscape' style developed by Zen priests. Raked gravel with rocks strategically placed within the confines of the white expanse of gravel. They could very easily have been islands within this imaginary sea.
We arrived at the main hail and were seated on cushions in the back while Reverend Maruyama went up the front of the room and was joined by two acolytes, also dressed in black kimonos. There in front there was a large hanging scroll of calligraphic art, an exquisitely wooden carved Buddha, and two vases, each filled with three freshly cut irises. They must have been gathered no more that a few minutes before since their petals still glistened with dew. I was a bit surprised at the starkly beautiful simplicity since most of the temples I had seen previous were filled with ornamentation. The sandalwood scented smoke from the incense brazier curled upward. Reverend Maruyama and his assistants began the sonorous chanting of the 'sutras'; the ancient sayings of Buddha, preserved by his Indian disciples, and taken to China. They had eventually reached the far distant shores of Japan, the land of The Rising Sun.
The occasional sound of a small, resonant bell, actually a small brass bowl, by one of the acolytes, filled the hall with its transparent purity. It was as if some clear liquid were being poured into a crystal goblet. At the same time it entered our beings and filled that interior space with its special, unspoken message. Then the large hall was filled with the apricot tinged light of the dawn. It was the glory and the beauty of the entire universe made physically evident in that simple, unadorned ceremony. I knew that this transcendent moment had entered into my inner structure and would be a part of my being forever, and from the tranquil look on Gregg's face it was evident that he must have had much the same experience. I also knew that, however much I might try, it was beyond verbalization.
Later, with the help of Hiroshi acting as translator, we talked to the Reverend Maruyama and he spoke of "the vibrant sense of tradition that flows like music through all of Japanese life. An awareness of historical traditions is how we keep our past with us always, intact. " He was pleased that we wanted to know about the substance of Japan and not just its superficial exterior.
He went on to briefly outline the history of Zen Buddhism in Japan. How it had arrived from China in the middle of the sixth century and, like nearly all things which have arrived in this land, had been changed to reflect the Japanese temperament. Buddhism arrived but did not replace Shinto, the ancestral religion that holds that everything in nature is somehow alive and divine. A marvelous belief woven into the earliest consciousness of the emerging Japanese people. The philosophy of Buddhism came to this land and sat beside the Shinto gods in peace and harmony. Each complimenting the other. I couldn’t help but mentally contrast this concept with that of the spread of Christianity and the other ‘truth’ wielding monotheistic religions, where they had insisted on replacing any foreign thought or belief which they encountered, and all too often by brute force.
Before taking leave of Reverend Maruyama, an incredibly kind, erudite man, enveloped in a robe of personal serenity, he suggested that Hiroshi obtain a particular book by Professor Takezawa of the nearby Kyoto University, a personal lifelong friend. He felt it would help to explain how the Japanese have, over the centuries, changed what they had borrowed from others, especially China. Hiroshi and his uncle chatted for a few moments and I had trouble fallowing their soft, rapid speech. Reverend Maruyama excused himself and Hiroshi explained that he was going to write a letter of introduction in the case that we might like to contact Professor Takezawa.
He had also accepted our Shuin books in order to put the beautiful calligraphic signature and stamp of the first temple of these two foreigners who had begun their own special pilgrimage. How does one react to the exact moment which initiates a life-long pilgrimage?
As we retraced our steps on the stone pathway, we were all silent since we were still within the encompassing mantel of our recent experience. The early autumn blooming sasanqua Camellias, sasankatsubaki, filled the air with their beauty and musty, woodsy fragrance. Then we reached the ancient, large, wooden gateway, the ages-old carvings worn down to an exquisite, subtle beauty, which the Japanese refer to as 'shibui'. A somewhat difficult word to translate, but Rev. Shimizu in Hokkaido had explained to me that it means 'restrained elegance which carries the patina of age'. I also recalled his having mentioned that any explanation was inadequate in explaining its full significance.
Then Hiroshi had yet another excellent suggestion; perhaps after breakfast we would like to go to Kyoto University where we might be able to meet with Professor Takezawa. He was now semi-retired and might have the time to chat with us for a bit. Hiroshi felt that anything Professor Takezawa talked about would be a valuable lesson, on this our introductory day in Kyoto. It would help to give us a greater insight into the treasures, which we would eventually see. Although Hiroshi had a definite plan for our exploration, he was obviously flexible and not averse to changing the itinerary.
On the bus ride to the University I questioned Hiroshi about the room where we had just partaken of what was obviously a ceremony to welcome the new day. Most of the Buddhist temples that I had visited contained numerous, and very elaborate religious trappings of statues and other sacred paraphernalia. He explained that his uncle, even a bit eclectic for a Zen priest, believed that the spirit of Buddha's teachings could be perceived without the necessity of exterior reminders. The word, in this case the chanted sutras, and looking within, or meditation, was sufficient. Hiroshi went on to explain that most of the large temples within the Daikoku compound that contained exactly the elaborate ornamentation that I had described, and in the next few days we would see much of that type of décor.
As we were shown into the small university office, crammed with books, Professor Takezawa rose, bowed and then greeted us in impeccable British English. As we discovered he had studied, many years ago, in England. We apologized for interrupting his valuable time and then, handing over the note of introduction from Reverend Maruyama, explained our desire to know more about the formation of the Japanese character. He commented that as an historian and sociologist he had devoted his life to a study the Japanese people. He almost immediately began discussing the curious phenomena of how his people had, through the centuries adopted ideas, concepts, and products from abroad and then in the process, changed what they had borrowed. They had in essence made it something new, had given it a Japanese flavor.
It began with the first Buddhist monks from China who arrived in 600 AD. They brought with them the foundations of a more advanced culture, a religious philosophy and equally important a new and different system of writing. The Chinese writing was adopted and soon changed; elaborated upon to more neatly fit the Japanese language with the addition of a separate set of phonetic characters.
As to the introduction of Zen Buddhism, that too evolved and changed, but it in turn helped to mold and change the developing Japanese culture. They had in this unique environment ripened and matured together until now it was difficult to separate the two and of course the binding element had been Shinto, the original code of ethics. . The complex whole, according to Professor Takezawa, was subtle and difficult to dissect for examination. He had several times referred to Dr. D.T. Suzuki's works and when I mentioned that Abbot Shimizu of Hokkaido had also spoken of him, his normally serious face lit up. It seemed that the three of them had been close friends in the past.
In the time that followed the professor touched upon Japanese literature, poetry, art, sculpture, ceramics, gardening and a myriad of other aspects of this culture. Though all had their beginnings in the mists of antiquity, they had also been influenced by, and had evolved, as a result of Zen Buddhism. When eventually we took leave of this humble, learned man, Gregg and I knew that ¡t had been a rare privilege to have spent time with him; just to have been in his presence for those few short hours. We were also aware that due to Hiroshi's foresight we were now much better prepared to understand and appreciate our experiences in the days ahead.
As we were leaving the building where the professor's office was located, my head was still attempting to absorb all of the information had been presented. Gregg suggested that we return to the bookstore we had visited previously since he wanted to find a book on Japanese History. We consulted Hiroshi as to this possibility and he felt that ¡t was a good idea since he knew of an excellent sashimi and sushi restaurant close to the bookstore. It would also be an opportunity to visit some of the larger stores in that area.
As we were exiting the bus Gregg asked me what 'sashimi' consisted of. I had momentarily forgotten that he was not familiar with many of the things, which were, after a year in this country, a part of my life. The look on his face was undoubtedly characteristic of the first time I was invited to eat sashimi, thinly sliced raw fish, but had quickly learned to appreciate its delicate, delicious flavor. I was attempting to explain this as he interrupted my discourse with, " Well, after a couple of beers or some sake, and the current status of my stomach, I'll try just about anything." He was much more taken with the sushi, rolls of vinegared rice and fresh vegetables, held together by delicious thin wrapper of dried seaweed, and available in countless variations.
During our late lunch Hiroshi produced our schedule for the next few days, written in precise English with copious notes in carefully written Japanese. It was increasingly obvious that our charming young guide was well organized. Gregg immediately decided that sushi and sashimi were delicious, especially when accompanied by sufficient quantities of the excellent Japanese beer. The fresh sea bream and tuna were indeed savory delights
Hiroshi had divided our tour up into five major divisions, north, south, east, west and ‘other’, explaining that we could explore each area thoroughly that way. Gregg and I later discussed how charming, and unique Hiroshi was. ‘Other’, which obviously was none of the cardinal directions, though if pressed for an explanation, we felt that Hiroshi could easily explain it. This morning we had begun in northern part of the city and though he had planned several other places in that area we had somewhat altered the original plan by visiting the University. He then smilingly and sagaciously added that the only permanent thing in life was change. Hiroshi asked if we would like to attend a performance of the Kabuki Theater, which was presently presenting several of its most classic works, and the one on Saturday evening was especially good. He then added that we should get our tickets several days in advance. It was something Gregg and I had previously discussed and were looking forward to experiencing.
Later we visited several bookstores, during which Gregg and I both added to our growing collection of books. We were now even buying books completely in Japanese, provided of course that they had lots of pictures and photographs. At one point, when Gregg and Hiroshi were busy chatting about a book of photos, I purchased a new Japanese-English dictionary as a gift for our charming guide. I'd noticed that the one he was carrying was rather small and somewhat limited. I knew that this small gift was inadequate, but hoped that it would help to show him that we appreciated his thoughtfulness. I was also aware that it was a part of Japanese etiquette and had it wrapped in a special burnished-gold paper with graceful white cranes, a symbol of friendship.
We then continued on to the large department stores in the central area. I had wanted to obtain a 'kakemono', hanging scroll, to send to my mother and finally encountered a black and white sumie landscape painting that was exquisite. However I decided to get it when we came back from Kyushu since it would be pointless to have something else to carry around. Gregg saw an elaborate, Chinese design tea set, which he wanted to get for his grandmother, but also decided to wait until we returned the following week. Eventually we determined it was time to call it a day. We had begun early and it appeared that the following day's schedule was packed with more adventures.
The next few days were spent immersing ourselves in the cultural past of Japan. Each location had its historical connotations and Gregg's predilection for history, plus Hiroshi's patient explanations, helped to put each in its proper chronological perspective. We learned that Kyoto was made the capital city by the Emperor Kanmu in the year 794 AD. Although Tokyo had been the de facto capital for many years, Kyoto remained the cultural center of the country. Hiroshi attempted to explain it by stating that, "Tokyo is the contemporary capital, but the real heart of Japan is Kyoto." Hiroshi had very proudly taken out his new dictionary in order to look up the word 'contemporary'. It was especially heartwarming to notice the broad smile on his face as he did so.
Friday morning found us once again in a Zen temple. Hiroshi seemed to have a penchant for visiting places of contemplation early. We were in the renowned Ryoanji Temple, justly famous for its exquisite 'garden' of raked gravel and 15 judiciously placed stones. The somewhat stark arrangement of the large rocks in a sea of raked gravel was a marvel of simplicity and subtlety. Hiroshi quietly explained that the larger rocks were so arranged that from any vantage point some of them were always hidden - a suggestion of the mysteries of life. Like so much of what we had seen it was another marvel which defied description; a direct pointing to something beyond everyday reality. Only by experience could its essence be savored.
As we were leaving Ryoanji, the 'pilgrims' dutifully having had their books stamped, our charming companion enigmatically stated that we were now going to visit a temple, which was no longer there. Soon we entered the magnificent gardens, which had previously held the 'Kinkakuji', or Golden Pavilion, it became obvious why he had chosen this site. The natural setting was perfection. There was a small lake surrounded by pines, maples and azaleas. The temple had burned down about five years before and was now in the process of being reconstructed. Hiroshi assured us that it would eventually be exactly as it was before. Future visitors might never know that this jewel of a temple had, at one time, been destroyed. Since there was a Buddhist priest in attendance, we even got stamps in our Shuin books from 'the temple that wasn't there'.
After lunch at a Yakkitori restaurant, with delicious skewered, grilled chicken, Hiroshi announced that we would spend the rest of the day visiting various artisans in their homes and small workshops.
First a visit to Kawaii Kanjiro, one of several famous potters of the area. In talking to this talented potter, Gregg had Hiroshi ask the gentleman how long it had taken him to learn this technique. He smilingly, and humbly replied that he still hadn't learned, but he was hoping to do so. We later discovered that he was 65 years old and recognized as one of the master potters of Japan. Our next stop was the home of an artist of sumie and calligraphy.
Gregg and I were both impressed that these masters of their crafts were not on an official, or even unofficial, list of tourist attractions. They were all personal friends of Hiroshi. Of course majoring in Art History it seemed reasonable that he might know the artisans of the area, those creative people who were still producing the art treasures, which had been a part of this area for centuries. Hiroshi had obtained tickets for the Saturday evening performance at the Kabuki theater, located in the Gion section [祇園] of the city, and we planned to start about midday and spend the entire time in that area since there were limitless places to visit
Gregg and I spent Friday evening reading about Gion, the area we would be visiting on the following day. It was an area of entertainment and artisans, not the least of which were the Geisha [芸者], or 'Geiko'[芸子] as they were known in Kyoto. Countless restaurants and teahouses, and naturally a number of historical temples. The term Geisha was well known in the west, and yet the occidental world had little or no idea of what it actually meant. In fact most had the completely erroneous idea that Geisha were, by profession, prostitutes.
We read that the Geisha first appeared in the 17th century, as dancers and musicians. Geisha, which means 'a person who lives by art' study tea ceremony, calligraphy, how to sing and play the samisen, to dance. They are trained in the art of conversation. They must have knowledge of literature, poetry, and history. But also have the contemporary world of business, the news of the day, and even sports. Our Japanese guidebook emphatically pointed out that the geisha is not a prostitute. If she does engage in a sexual relationship, it is as a result of an enduring friendship and is at her discretion. We read that, "Sealed lips are a symbol of the Geisha's code of honor." They are available for small parties or large banquets; a birthday party or dinners where businessmen conduct delicate negotiations. They pour the sake, entertain and keep the conversation flowing.
Through discipline and talent the geisha create a life of beauty. They make themselves into the image of a perfect woman, the embodiment of Japanese culture and refinement, a living work of art.
As we stood in line waiting to enter, I looked at the sign above the theater. The previous night we had read that the word 'kabuki' was composed of three kanji characters which meant singing, dance and art. Kabuki theater, with its emphasis on dramatic stories from Japan's rich history, had been a part of the Japanese culture for centuries. It had originally been founded in about 1600 AD by a Shinto priestess from the Izumo Shrine, but soon lost its religious association. Before long courtesans were performing and evidently some of their acts bordered on being lewd. Then too the male admirers often created public disturbances in an attempt to win their favors. The government responded by banning female performers from the theater.
The female roles had been taken over by a special group of male actors who became known as 'onnagata', female impersonators. But the troubles hadn't exactly ended. The 'onnagata' proved nearly as adept at creating scandal as the courtesans. They attracted both women, who found their masquerade titillating, and men who simply liked men. However, after 250 years it would be impossible to consider kabuki without the performances of the onnagata.
Hiroshi had mentioned that we were to see a work by the well-known 20th century writer, Okamoto Kido, who had incorporated contemporary issues within an historical setting. The play was entitled 'Minowa no Shinju' - Love Suicide at Shinju. Suicide was a favorite theme for kabuki since it utilized a very dramatic subject. The actor who was to play the onnagata role was Danjuro Takiji. According to Hiroshi, he was considered by many to be the finest contemporary 'onnagata' in Japan.
The theater was packed. Hiroshi had obtained excellent seats, and was still explaining the plot. The samurai Geki is enamored with the courtesan Ayaginu. It was a story of political intrigue and pledged love, of economic disaster, family honor and eventually a decision by the two lovers to commit suicide. The first act was well underway and Geki and his sister were discussing his decision to pawn his armor, a hereditary treasure of his family for years. It was difficult to believe that Geki's sister was in fact a man. Soon the scene changed, Geki gazed at he moon and sang about the pangs of love while awaiting his beloved Ayaginu. The musicians, seated at the side of the stage, were suddenly silent. A hush had fallen over the theater and heads began to turn towards the back of the theater. Then the musician with the wooden clappers began a soft, staccato beat. A woman was walking slowly and daintily down the gangplank, which extended from the back of the theater to the stage. She was dressed in a magnificent peach colored kimono with golden chrysanthemums. Her obi, or wide sash, was a soft, moss colored gold-green. Her face was strikingly beautiful with its stark white makeup and scarlet mouth.
Ayaginu had reached the stage and began to sing. It was impossible to believe that this was not a real woman. The voice, posture, expression and movements were all completely feminine. I, along with the rest of the audience, was transfixed. I knew that any effeminate man could dress up and resemble a woman, but this was something extraordinary. The emotion projected there on stage could only come from genius. The rest of the play was as enchanting, magical and bewitching as that incredible moment. When the play eventually ended with the suicide of the two protagonists, I knew that I had just been witness to one of the most extraordinary events of my life. Gregg's silence, as we left the theater, was mute testimony that he too was impressed beyond words. Hiroshi seemed to be aware that we were rapidly adopting one of the most prominent features of the art of conversing in Japan; the eloquence of silence.
Every moment in this unique city was a learning experience. The two American pilgrims were in the process of filling their ‘Go Shuin Cho', with more than stamps from temples. Each page would also be replete with unforgettable memories.