Strong whiff of history

The simple life
Last Updated 30 October 2010, 10:22 IST

One of quaint neighbourhoods with clothes drying in the backyard, elderly Japanese women clomping around in their flat wooden sandals, old temples with stone gateways and small fruit and vegetable stores.

At first glance it seems like a scene we’d see in neighbourhoods of Mexico city or old Bangalore. Over the next four days I realise any such resemblance is superficial at best.  
From the way vegetables are stacked at the corner store, to how food is served or the way even strangers help us — the relentless attention to detail and unwavering courtesy of the Japanese unfurls itself in unexpected ways. This is particularly true for all the people we encounter in Kyoto, justly proud of their grand temples, imbued in a strong sense of history and none of the big city airs of Tokyo.

Zen state

Kyoto, about 500 kilometers south of Tokyo, was founded in the 8th century and remained the capital of Japan for more than a 1000 years. Unrest and civil war in the 16th century was the last troubles the city faced. It luckily escaped bombing in World War II. Therefore much of Kyoto’s thousands of Buddhist temples and Shinto (Japan’s native religion) shrines have remained intact for nearly five centuries.

A visitor to Kyoto who is pressed for time has the unenviable task of picking a few from amongst the numerous well preserved temples and their Zen gardens that the city is famous for. We have our own favourites marked for exploration. 

On our first evening my husband is eager to take us to the Pontocho, a narrow cobblestone lane that runs behind the buildings on the waterfront. From Hardwar to Venice I have strolled my share of narrow lanes yet the Pontocho stands alone. 14th century tea houses rub shoulders with the rare modern studio. Restaurants, tea houses, and we were told Geisha houses, line the lane.

We crane our necks gawking at the facades of the wooden buildings, the life-like reproduction of menu items in lighted displays in restaurant windows, ceramic knick-knacks in narrow entryways and even the bamboo covers on the utilities of old buildings.  
Prior to this trip, origami, the traditional art of folding paper into shapes and ikebana, the art of flower arrangement, were the extent of my knowledge of Japanese art. The evening on the Pontocho is a lesson in itself. I am amazed at how traditional art, has not merely survived, but been integrated into everyday modern living, be it the cotton cloth with pen and ink calligraphy, that hang in the doorways of restaurants or hand made paper lanterns that discretely cover compact fluorescent lamps.

These visible symbols of Japanese artistic expression gives me the sudden insight that these ancient yet vibrant arts epitomise the values of green living even more than a convention of environmentalists. 

Our meal that night at a tofu-restaurant, overlooking the river, is an immersive experience in Japanese hospitality. If I had to prepare, let alone eat, a 24-course meal with potatoes as the only vegetable, I’d gag from the very thought. Yet this tiny restaurant stuns us with a veritable feast, with every course prepared and presented uniquely with Kyoto’s speciality tofu, soybean curd. The unending series of tofu preparations are presented by two women in kimonos who must have bowed more times in a single evening than we have ever in all our lives.

The next day we are ready early — sneakers on our feet, backpacks loaded with bottles of water and pounds of inari (rice cakes wrapped in seaweed) to begin our temple tours. We begin with the Ryoanji temple also known as The Temple of the Peaceful Garden. Set in northwestern Kyoto, it is famous for its dry landscape garden constructed sometime in the late 15th century. 

Fifteen rocks laid out in no apparent pattern on raked white gravel and surrounded by short walls, form the rectangular Zen garden at Ryoanji. Unlike other Zen gardens, there is no sound of water gently flowing or pretty bonsai trees dotting the landscape. An ornate bell with kanji letterings overlooks the scene. I watch the sunlight making shadows on the rocks and hear the faint sound of a cuckoo in the distance. It’s like a still life painting with neither water nor shrubs, its stark simplicity draws me into a introspective trance even before I realise it.

I feel I could spend the whole afternoon gazing at it, as many of the other visitors seemed to be doing. Even my hyper-active ten-year-old finds the ambience meditative and gazes reverentially at the silent garden.

As we leave the Ryoanji garden reluctantly, two Japanese women beckon us with thimble-sized tea cups. ‘Kyoto green tea, try!’ they insist all the while bowing. Needing little encouragement we succumb and reach for the tea cup. It is unlike any tea we have ever had. In a single sip I feel the tang of seaweed, a dash of ginger and an aftertaste that is a balm to my parched throat.

We buy a few packets to take home. The tea comes packed in an absolutely exquisite paper bag with a braided string to fasten it close. It is this uniquely Japanese design sensibility in even the tiniest tea bag that lingers with me and makes our visit to Kyoto special.

(Published 30 October 2010, 10:22 IST)

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