Kyoto’s Aqueducts and Nanzenji Temple

Have you ever heard the story of the Eiffel Tower in Paris?

When it was built, the residents were against it.  Now it’s iconic to Paris.

In 1890, the aqueducts were built to move water from Lake Biwa into the thirsty and growing city of Kyoto.  When the designs were released, many Kyoto residents protested and called their “Romanesque” look too “western” and not suitable for the ancient Japanese capitol.

To this day, they feed the city, water moving over them at a rate of 2 tons per minute.  They’ve also become a tourist attraction in a city filled with them.

It was fun taking our pictures under the arches.

Dark interiors are common in zen Buddhist temple and created by long, gently sloping eaves.

I personally love the feel of the wooden floors underfoot. You just glide over it.

This is an example of a kare-sansui or “dry garden”. In Zen Buddhism you spend years training to obtain an “Mushin” mind or “empty mind”. A state where the mind is clear of judgements and emotions, one that learns to focus on the present.

Some say the dry garden represent the universe stripped down to its most basic elements.  I’ve also heard that creating the gardens helps the monks clear their minds.  What do you seen in the dry gardens?

In contrast to Shingon Buddhism, Zen Buddhist temples are symmetrical and do not build themselves to blend into nature. Instead they conform nature to their structures.

The cedar used in most temples is very difficult to get in Japan these days because it takes the trees a long time to grow.

Nanzen-ji Temple is pretty spectacular.  Sometimes in Japan a lot of temples can start to look alike.  However, these are pretty unique.

If you would like to see and hear more about this day please check out my video:

Kyoto’s Aqueducts Video

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Kozan-Ji Temple In Kyoto

 

A new experience can be fresh and exciting. You might have expectations, but your mind is open to possibilities.  We arrived to Kozan-ji not knowing what we would see. I imagined another temple, but what we got was nature itself.

The surroundings are the impressive part. The air smells so woodsy and crisp. As you climb the steps of the mountain you enter a verdant green forest of towering cedars and exposed carpets of moss.

We actually passed an elderly woman sweeping the moss with a wicker broom and picking debris off it. This leaves all the carpets of green moss that add to the beauty, as if the forest itself is a great hall filled with giant pillars (cedars) and lined by carpets of moss.

Much of the scenery reminded me of Koya-san, likely because both temple grounds belong to the Shingon Sect of Buddhism. One brought from China centuries ago by a man named Kukai.

Have you ever seen the video “History of Japan” by Bill Wurtz?  It went viral a few months ago.

In it he mentions, “A rich hipster named Kukai goes to China and learns a better version (of Buddhism) and comes back.”

You can check it out here:

History of Japan

It’s told in a joking way, but Kukai’s influence was quite significant.  Without him, Esoteric Buddhism would not have survived.

After Kukai returned to Japan, the Chinese Emperor burned down all its temples and teaching in China.  Japan became the last refuge for Shingon Buddhism.

What is Esoteric Buddhism?  Well, its practitioners believe that you try to envision Buddha through magical incantations and forming your hands in what are called “Mudras”.

In Esoteric teaching, they believe that words and existence can’t be separated, and the true essence of Buddhism can’t be explained in human language.  The phenomena around the world hint at the true reality.

In contrast to this, exoteric teachings are concerned with discerning meaning from the surface of things.

There was so much beauty in the nature around Kozan-ji. It was breathtaking. There was an energy in the air.

Kosan-ji Temple is renown for its numerous historical treasures (one now kept in a museum in Kyoto).  It was registered as part of the UNESCO world heritage site in 1994.

The temples are construction in the Wayou style — using simplicity and a refrain from ornamentation.  Shingles and bark cover the roofs rather than tiling.  They are also made to adapt to the natural environment and blend into the surroundings unlike Zen Temples which favor symmetrical layouts.

If you would like to see more then please check out the video I made on our experience:

Our Trip To Kozan-Ji

Our Best Garden Experience In Japan

The weather could not have been more fabulous in Kyoto this Golden Week.

Not too hot, not too muggy, it was just right.

Our first stop was was Nanzen-ji Temple and its aqueducts (more on that in a separate post) and, after entering the grounds, we noticed this:

The name Tenjyuan (天授庵 ) literarily means “Heaven Given”.  You won’t hear about this garden in most “Things You Must See In Kyoto” and that’s good. We had this stunning gem mostly to ourselves and what a discovery it was.

We were lucky since it’s only open in spring and autumn.

Here is a short video I made about our experience. The sounds in the video are what we actually heard, from the twitter of the birds to the gong of the monks’ bell. After you watch, I recommend returning to read more details in this blog.

Garden You Tube Video

Our experience was worth the 400 yen fee to enter the gardens. I’ve been to many gardens in Japan, but this was the best in my opinion.  There were large grounds at the Nanzen-ji complex, yet most walked right by this without a clue as to the wonder they were missing.

We were enraptured by the trance-like atmosphere of the garden. This sub-temple was created in dedication to a Zen Master who served in Emperor Kameyama in the 17th century. It is best seen in autumn.

When you first enter, you encounter a dry garden or a “kare-sansui”. The only sounds of the outside world we could hear were sounds of the monks’ bell and an occasional plane passing overhead.

We relaxed on the wooden porch for a bit, basking in the warm sun and peaceful glow of the garden.

Do you know why the bridge is in a zig-zag?

It is common to see these types of bridges in Japanese gardens.  According to old belief, evil spirits can only travel in straight lines, so they cannot cross this.

The main pond was covered in lily pads. My husband and I could not take enough photos of this. Digital photography and videography cannot capture the real feeling of a place no matter how hard you try. Unfortunately, you cannot bottle up an experience and relive it. If I could this would be one of those memories, I’d keep and relive whenever I felt sad.

There were turtles gathered on a rock (you can see them in the video) and I thought they were statues at first. They were so still.  One even jumped in the water, but I wasn’t fast enough to catch it on video.

Big, fat Koi fish filled the ponds and followed us, waiting for food. They were so colorful. I suspect they only pick they prettiest Koi to put in here.

And this was our experience here.  I know reading about it doesn’t capture the majesty of the moment, however, I hope it can give you an idea of what it was like.

Amazing Green Tea Shop in Uji (Kyoto)

Japan is famous for its green tea.

But how do you tell the high-quality stuff from the low-quality?

Well, you could go by price, but that isn’t a very good determinant.  For many Japanese its all about origin.  Where did you get it?

If you say: Uji Street in Kyoto.

There’s a good chance it’s high-quality.  Uji tea is famous for its high quality.  However, there is one particular shop that stands out even among the best there. That is the San Sei-En Tea Shop (the Tristar Garden).  So famous they have been in the popular program “Why Did You Come to Japan?” 

My husband watches that show every week, recording it so he can watch it when he gets off work.

San Sei En Tea Shop’s tea is drunk by the Imperial Family.  They order it in bulk once a year to serve to the Japanese Meiji Emperor.

The daughter of the shop owner is married to a man from Switzerland who is fluent in over four languages (German, English, Japanese, and I believe French).

Every time we stop by Uji Street in Kyoto we always go here.  If the Emperor himself likes this tea, it must be good!

On the second floor there is even a small museum to the family who have been making tea for over sixteen generations.  So if you want great quality at an affordable price than stop by here on your way to Byodo-en!  The family is also so nice.  They let me film inside and even told me about how they make it.

Outside the store is a device that makes Houjicha (ほうじ茶?) which is unique to other green teas because it is roasted in a porcelain pot over charcoal. Most Japanese teas are steamed. At this high temperature, the leaf color turns reddish-brown.

The roasting process gives the tea a toasty, caramel-like flavor and lowers the amount of caffeine in the tea. Due to this mildness, Houjicha is a more popular tea for evening and before bed.

Here is a short video on our lovely experience. They even talk about how they make it and show inside.  You can try it in their little cafe in the back.

If you ever visit Uji, check this place out for a very warm, friendly, and delicious experience:

 

Green Tea Shop

Once Upon A Japanese Pension

Deep in the countryside, far from the foreign tourists, exists a very local fairy tale in Japan.  One that will make you feel at home.

If you would like to watch the video this post is based on, then click on the video below:

Pensions


There once was a girl who loved food, relaxing in nature, and meeting with people domestic to the country she lived in.  Alas, few places combined all three things until she discovered…

PENSIONS

They exist throughout the world. They are not Beds And Breakfasts. They can serve all the meals, including afternoon tea in some cases.  Japanese Pensions are always family run and each is unique to the other.

Unlike hostels which are mainly foreigns tourists and hotels where people never really can meet, Pensions proved a great way to interact with Japanese families and couples.  You can do a half-pension where you skip the lunch.

At breakfast and dinner, everyone gathers in an area and the owners bring out their meal, one course at a time. It is a very relaxing atmosphere.  The best part is not only how good the food is, but how unique the atmosphere is.

It is said no two pensions are alike.

We have stayed at many now (I love them) and they have all been so different from each other. One had an private onsen where guests could reserve their time.  I wish I knew where my pictures of that one were. It had these amazing wood carvings everywhere.  Another took us on a stargazing walk at about 8pm in the mountains.

In the evening, there are private baths and you reserve your time. (I’ve never seen one where the room had its own washing area. You usually reserve your time and everyone uses the same bathing area).

There is also a lounge in most with a bar of sorts, a TV, and games. It’s a great place to socialize with Japanese couples and Japanese families. The owners usually come down and join everyone. Since pensions are too small for tour groups and you need a car to get to most, you’ll almost always find you’re the only foreigner.

Which I find nice, because I like to get to know people who live in the country.

At one pension we stayed up until one am chatting with the owner who kept giving us drinks. He was so generous that he didn’t charge for the drinks at all even though we said we were find to pay.  He just love nice company.

This friendly, family air is common to most. You are not just their guest, you are like their family (even though they likely will not see you again).

If you get an oppotunity to do so, pensions are that cottage in the wood where grandma lives. But there are no wolves or dangerous things.  They are simply happy places and you might find yourself in a bit of a fairy tale.

How I Met Prince Charming In Japan

Disclaimer

This fairy tale is based on the actual events of what happened, but I can’t bring myself to totally share my life publicly. So I have mixed the facts with fictional elements and told it in a fairy tale style.

I leave it to the listener to separate the truth from the exaggeration.


In the land of Texas there lived a young woman who had become cynical of love.

Her heart had been broken by her first love, a man who had wanted her to choose between him and her chance to go to the Land of the Rising Sun for a year. She could not give up her chance and so they parted ways.

With the pieces of her shattered heart, she left the burning hot land of Texas and journeyed far, far away to the Land of the Rising Sun. She settled into a rural village and became the local magic maker (English Teacher) who could speak in tongues.

Her powers could send the teenagers scattering with cries of “Eigo dame daiyo!” (Not English!)

One day, after venturing into the nearest city, a friend told her of a wondrous witch’s potion shop (coffee shop) where they would have a magic ball. At the ball, she met many local women, but very few men. She was in conversation when a breeze touched her cheek and turned her gaze to the door. 

Her breath caught at the sight of a handsome man in dark, grey robes (trench coat). His black hair seemed to sparkle and he came and sat down beside her. Soon they, despite struggling through each other’s languages, they managed a lively conversation.   

Until the clock struck midnight and it was time to go.

On her way out, she froze, tempted to give him her phone number. However, too jaded by her broken heart, she decided to leave their beautiful connection as nothing more than a warm memory. If it was meant to be, she thought, then they would meet again.  

After three days had passed, she returned to the city and, in a very different part of town, she traveled to dinner with two friends. Had her face not been turned to her friend on the right, had she been looking in any other direction at that very moment what happened next would never have occurred.

She would never have met her prince again.

However, she was looking right at that very moment and saw through the glass window of another potion shop (Starbucks) to where a man in elegant robes stood. He was studying potion recipes (coffee beans).

The shock brought her to a standstill so suddenly that her friends carried on a few more feet before they noticed she had stopped. Without a word to them, she darted into the shop, heart pounding, feet moving of a different power.

She reached up and tapped his shoulder. When he turned, recognition lit his every feature.

Blushing all over, she blurted out, “Do you remember me?”

A wide grin split his face. “Of course.”

She grinned back.

Her friends arrived, asking what was going on, and she introduced her handsome prince who offered to buy them all magic potions.  Soon began an awkward conversation, followed by an even more awkward exchange of information and a promise to meet again at a Festival of Light (Fireworks festival).

And that was how they began.

The morale of this story:

Sometimes, if you have a little faith, fate won’t let you down. After all, every now and again, it is meant to be.

And they lived as happily as anyone ever really can…