Savoring Traditional Settings At Nikko, Kyoto and Nara

March 21, 2012 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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By Sven Krogius


News for those who live, work and play in Brooklyn and beyond

Nikko, about a two-hour train trek north of Tokyo, is arguably worth a look. Dad (the editor of this paper) was firmly dismissive of Nikko — “It’s not Japanese!” And indeed the gates and temples and bell towers and other buildings might be called Chinese baroque – sporting all sorts of intricate structural adornments, dragons and monkeys and busy swirls, and lots of lurid reds and greens and gold. They’re too much.

But the natural setting is extremely powerful — up in the high hills surrounded by enormous straight pine trees that guard over the sites like huge sentinels. And indeed the bronze tomb of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the shogun who died in 1616 and to whom the whole place is dedicated, at the end of a very tastefully constructed stone walkway above all the gaudy temples, is quite understated and serene. In addition, the low-slung pink and white railroad station in town, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, is elegant.


Now for the piece de resistance: Kyoto. Kyoto is about 230 miles southwest of Tokyo and a mere two hours and twenty minutes on the Shinkansen, the Japanese bullet trains (with the ride costing about 13,500 yen, or about $170 U.S.). Kyoto was Japan’s imperial capital between 794 and 1868 and is still deemed by many the cultural heart of Japan. It largely escaped the bombing that ravaged many Japanese cities, including Tokyo.

Indeed, for our enjoyment of the delights of Kyoto we can in part thank Henry Stimson, U.S. secretary of war in 1945, who was apparently responsible for removing Kyoto from the targeting list for the atomic bomb, as he wanted to save this cultural center that he knew from his honeymoon and further diplomatic visits (Nagasaki was then substituted).A venerable philosopher was encountered along the serene Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto.

But for the record, my general impression of the Shinkansen route from Tokyo to Kyoto (passing through Nagoya — one of Toyota’s major bases) was not favorable. The land on either side of the route is very densely built-up with nondescript low-rise buildings, and, while some farther off mountain ridges provided some respite, it was difficult to get a sense of the beauty of the land. [As I dozed off I started thinking that Godzilla might have just decided to ravage the Japanese corporate-suburbia landscape simply because he didn’t like the monotony of the building.]

A Ryokan

A word about my lodgings in Kyoto. At the suggestion of my Japan-savvy friend, I elected to stay at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, the Hiiragiya ryokan to be precise, one of the most famous ryokans in the area. The ryokan features tatami-matted rooms, kimono-clad staff and special in-house meals presented according to the kaiseki tradition (featuring multiple small dishes).

The lodgings were far from cheap (about $500 a night, including an elaborate breakfast and dinner), but they were well worth it. With its tatami mats, sliding screen doors and low-lying tea tables, the room faced out onto a small garden having moss and bamboo shoots. Staff members served you meals and at night laid out a futon for sleeping. One of the charming staff members, Hatsumi, served me both breakfast and dinner. She diligently brought me one course at a time and then left the room for anywhere from 3 to 5 minutes to let me finish the course in peace.

My first dinner included such delights as “blowfish in aspic” (yes, that’s the poisonous fish all right), sushi of conger eel and wakame sea vegetables (edible seaweed). My Japanese-style breakfast was also a treat — although I remember the whole grilled mackerel staring at me throughout. While all very tasty, I sometimes felt as though anything on the sea-bed floor was fair game for my plate. And what’s a ryokan without a dress code! The hotel-supplied yukata was required wearing during meal-times.

Multi-armed Kannon

To the Temples! And they are plentiful indeed in Kyoto. On Day One my focus was on the large cluster of temples and shrines east of the Kamo-gawa (the Kamo River). First was Sanjusangen-do. This Buddhist temple had perhaps the most interesting interior of any I saw — housing a large statue of the Kannon (the Buddhist goddess of mercy) with her 40 plus arms, flanked by 1,000 smaller kannon images (500 on either side) and fronted by wooden statues of various deities including the Hindu gods Brahman (creator of the world) and Lakshmi (goddess who brings luck).

Not only do the kannon (and there are many kannon in Kyoto) have 40 arms, but the arms hold various instruments, like lotus leaves and whisks, to remove pain and bring joy. [Very thick votive candles for offerings to the Buddha were available for a mere 1,000 yen (about $12.50).] The whole effect was a bit like going through an attic with too much bric-a-brac: too many arms doing too many things.

Next up was Kiyomizu-Dera, one of the pearls of Kyoto. Superbly set, this large dark-brown cypress-singled temple stands perched alongside a cliff and has an impressive view over the terraced cemetery nearby. Then to the Chion-in Temple. The Chion-in is very large and boasts the largest temple bell in Japan (toward the back of the complex up a flight of stairs) that is well worth a look. Then moving north up to Nanzen-ji, a beautifully laid out Zen complex with a brick aqueduct, garden and delightful smaller temple at the back.

Relieving Temple Fatigue

At that stage, I’ll fess up, I was already suffering a bit of temple fatigue. Respite came in the form of one of the true delights of Kyoto: the Philosopher’s Path. Named for one of its famous strollers, the 20th century philosopher Nishida Kitaro, the narrow dirt and stone path lined with cherry trees follows the banks of a canal moving north up to the Ginkakuji (the Silver Pavilion). I trekked up the Philosopher’s Path twice during my stay, the night of my first evening in Kyoto, and during the afternoon of my second day, and achieved something approaching a short Buddhist-like peace during both tours.

Toward the northern end of the path I entered the Honen-in, a very small temple complex set up to honor the priest Honen who founded a schismatic sect of Buddhism in the 12th century (a sort of Eastern Luther of his day, perhaps). It’s a lovely small-scale, untouristed area up a set of wide stairs letting out onto a tree-filled hill. It has some lovely features, including stupas (structures which represent the Buddha in abstract form — they appeared rather like small stone pagodas in Kyoto) surrounded by moss and a nice little belfry.

Then onto another must-see, Ginkaku-ji, or the Silver Palace. Truth be told, this is a far slicker and more frequented locale, and far less peace-instilling than the Honen-in. Yes, the layout of the rocks and bamboo and the moss are all very nice and the small wooden pavilion hall itself very tasteful, but you could tell that this is part of the Kyoto tourist engine — there was a thick crowd of visitors, and the many workers attending to landscaping work had corporate uniforms; by comparison, the Honen-in was a small family-run operation.

Gold, Rocks and Sand

I had been going at a great clip: I had finished the east side of Kyoto in a mere six hours and change, and it was about 3 p.m. While legs ached, I decided it best to polish off two other must-sees on the western side of town: Kinkaku-ji (the famed Golden Pavilion) and the rock garden at Ryoan-ji. Like the Silver Palace, the Golden Palace felt a bit Disneyfied (the gold-plated pavilion itself was reconstructed in the 1950s after a mad monk burned the place down), but there’s no denying the place does have star power and the reflection of the gold pavilion in the nearby pond keeps them coming back.

The Ryoan-ji rock garden is fun. It has 15 rocks of different sizes laid out on small moss islands in the bed of raked sand. And as the story goes, a spectator can only make out 14 of the rocks from any single vantage point (because at least one of the rocks is obstructed from view by another rock).

Towering pines at Nikko are part of an imposing natural setting that compensates for over-the-top architecture.The Ryoan-ji done, my mandatory temple program was complete and I took the liberty of walking south alongside the banks of the Kamogawa river back into the center of town. It’s a very relaxing walk and filled with unexpected pleasures. There were herons aplenty. One young fellow had brought drums down to the river bank by bicycle and was drumming away (quite skillfully). Various characters sporting headsets were singing fortissimo (again quite skillfully) facing the river. Couples seemed more affectionate. It was almost as though the river unleashed the animal spirits in the Kyotoans.

By the time I made it back to the center, it was nightfall and I rushed back to the ryokan for another multi-course meal and nigori sake (an unfiltered, cloudy sake). Kampai!


A passing word on geishas. Kyoto, in particular the Gion area of Kyoto, just east of the Kamogawa River, is the great bastion of the geisha. These visions, instantly recognizable by their perfectly done up porcelain white faces, lacquered hair and elegant kimonos, are, as all guide-books will scream out, not prostitutes. Rather they are highly trained artists, skilled in singing, dancing and playing Japanese musical instruments, who entertain paying (typically male) clients over dinner or tea. I chanced to see two. One through a brief opening of an outer curtain door of a restaurant on Hanami-koji, a street known for its restaurants and tea houses, where geishas entertain clients. At first I thought the kneeling woman was a porcelain statue, so delicate and still she looked, but then she smiled — a great smile that lit up the whole room and beyond — and I was utterly enchanted. Eat your heart out Mona Lisa! The second, perhaps an apprentice geisha, was buying some luncheon provisions at the Kyoto station. I thought about reaching for my camera, but she seemed so lovely that it crushed the paparazzo impulse in me.


Nara, a 30-minute train ride from Kyoto, is home to what must certainly be one of the greatest sights in Japan, the Todai-ji temple complex. First visitors are greeted by the Nandai-mon Gate, a very large, pleasingly faded gate that houses two wonderful wooden sculptures of Nio guardians dating from the 13th century.

It was raining the day I visited Nara and the overall effect was like in the opening scene of Rashomon where the woodcutter (played by the great Takashi Shimura) begins his tragic and enigmatic tale of the samurai, his wife and the highwayman (played by the great Toshiro Mifune) under Kyoto’s Rashomon gate (Rashomon, the main city gate of Kyoto, was known as a hangout of undesirable types) as the rain is pouring down. The thought made me tingle.

And then forward, another hundred meters or so, flanked by visiting schoolchildren and some local deer, looms the main temple — a massive wooden building (according to the guidebooks, the largest wooden structure in the world), exceedingly impressive. Within rests the Daibutsu, a giant 16-meter tall bronze Buddha (once again the guidebook claims the Buddha as the largest bronze statue in the world).

Regrets: a week is hardly sufficient to get a real sense of Japan. Next time I am keen to travel on the ancient Nakasendo, a footpath-highway that stretched from Kyoto to Edo (now Tokyo). While much of the route has been developed, a few stretches apparently remain in their historic form. In particular, I would visit Matsumoto Castle, one of the oldest wooden castles in Japan, which stands along the ancient route. And I would also take the time to visit the famous Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, including the crack-of-dawn tuna auction, as well as take in a sumo match and a kabuki play. Japan still holds plenty of yet-to-be-savored mysteries for this correspondent.Nijo Castle in Kyoto is among Japan’s architectural treasures.

Sven Krogius, an attorney based in Moscow, is a son of Heights Press editor Henrik Krogius.

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