Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Rediscovering Japan

It was Flick's birthday on Monday - the perfect excuse to take a holiday.
We were originally planning to go snowboarding in Hokkaido, so we booked the Monday and Tuesday off in preparation, but in the end the cheap flights we were hoping to get sold out before we could get our mittens on them. Time for Plan B - a long weekend in Kyoto.
Despite living only a two hour train journey away from Kyoto, I've so far managed to somehow avoid visiting it. Well, that isn't strictly true I suppose; I did go on a school trip there in 2004, but since the whole visit lasted just three hours and the coach journey there and back took six hours I don't really count it as a proper "visit" - it was more like drive-by tourism. Then in August I went there again with my family, but because of some unfortunate confusion with local train times, we only ended up having time to visit one temple - Kiyomizudera.
This time though, things were different - we had a whole three days at our disposal for some hardcore tourism, and boy did we make the most of it. I could bang on for ages about all the places we visited in Kyoto, but I'll spare you the details and instead talk about the one place that stands out above the others: the rock garden at Ryoanji.
In a way, seeing the garden was a bit like rediscovering Japan. For a long time now, my life in Japan has become more about my daily grind at work than about discovering Japanese culture, and I think it's the same for most people who live here for a long time. The extraordinary gives way to the ordinary, and although I'm still often surprised by things that happen in everyday life, the little quirks no longer have the impact that they did when I first got here. I guess this is what they call "becoming acclimatised".
The rock garden definitely made an impression on me though. It reminded me about the other side of Japanese culture; the ancient, traditional Japanese culture which doesn't involve heated toilet seats or neon love hotels. The rock garden was something from Japan's past, something based on the concept of Zen rather than Hello Kitty. A garden which is over 500 years old, but which looks bizarrely modern.
Fifteen rocks, surrounded by gravel. That's all it is. But the longer you contemplate it, the more you begin to see: the patterns in the raked gravel, the differing colours of the rocks, the subtle striations on their surface. The garden is more like a tool for focusing the mind than a decoration.
That is, it would be if it wasn't for The Woman. The Unspeakable American Woman. The Woman who seemed completely unable to read in her head, and so insisted on reading all the English signs she came across in a very loud voice for no reason whatsoever. The Woman who decided it would be a good idea to count how many rocks there are in the garden again and again and again and again. Out loud. As if the garden were in fact some kind of Sesame Street numbers game rather than a place for meditation. The Woman whose voice just seemed to keep following us around no matter how hard we tried to escape from her. Oh, damn you Woman. For shame, for shame.
Still, in the brief pauses when The Woman wasn't shrieking about something or other it was a very tranquil and thought-provoking experience. Although of course most of the thoughts which came to mind belonged firmly in the "I think I'm going to murder that American woman" category.
Anyway, I'd highly recommend a trip to Ryouanji if you plan to go to Kyoto - you can read more about it here. Just don't forget to bring earplugs.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

dude should have said something to that woman, or at least hit her in the elbow.

10:58 am  
Blogger C said...

Hey, how do you know she wasn't Canadian? Ok, fine, she was probably American.

2:59 pm  

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