The standard visit to Kyoto is a test of endurance: you stay until you are sick of temples. This comes as a shock to first-time visitors, for while the city is rich in beautiful tourist spots, a true understanding of the nation’s cultural heartland remains as elusive as a maiko (apprentice geisha) scurrying from taxi to tea house in a blaze of flashbulb lights.
Fortunately, there are an increasing number of places that are sharing experiences of the city’s traditions, from the quietude of Zen meditation and the tea ceremony to the opulence of traditional merchant homes and intricate kimono designs.
The Zen sects of Japanese Buddhism are essential to understanding Japanese culture as a whole, for much of the austere simplicity associated with the nation’s art sprang from the powerful Zen temples in Kyoto. The best way — perhaps the only way — to come to an understanding of Kyoto’s Zen traditions is to try meditation for yourself.
One of the best Zen temples for foreigners is Shunko-in, a subtemple of the large Myoshin-ji complex in western Kyoto. The American-educated vice-abbot, Rev. Takafumi Kawakami, offers tours and meditation sessions three times daily. Under his direction, visitors can learn the basics of the same sitting meditation that led the Buddha to Enlightenment: folded legs, erect posture, half-closed eyes and a focus on measured breathing that leads to awareness of the way the mind works.
Rev. Kawakami’s temple is also a good place for beginners because of his reluctance to use the keisaku or “discipline stick.” The keisaku is a long, flat and flexible piece of wood used to smack the shoulders of meditators who are losing focus or falling asleep.
“The most important thing is to relax,” Rev. Kawakami said, explaining why he rarely uses the keisaku. “Meditation isn’t torture.”
For the record, receiving the keisaku is more surprising than painful, and it is indeed useful if you start to nod off near the end of the session. Instead, for beginners, he suggests focusing on the movement of the breath and not worrying about dispelling every thought that arises.
Opposite the spiritual peaks of Zen temples is the secular world of Kyoto’s traditional townhouses, or machiya. Machiya are long and narrow, for homes were taxed according to frontage width, with a workshop in the front and living quarters behind. Home to 13 generations of kimono wholesalers, Tondaya is a machiya in the heart of the old Nishijin textiles district that offers both foreign and local guests the somewhat rare opportunity to have a tea ceremony in an opulent old machiya while wearing kimono. Tondaya has several notable features, such as a huge mother-of-pearl inlay table used for guests’ lunches, several Buddhist and Shinto family shrines, and a small stage for Noh (a form of drama) in front of a wide garden. The best place in the home, however, is the small tea-ceremony room. The motions of serving and drinking the thick matcha (whipped powdered green tea) are as codified and symbolic as those of a monk, but the emphasis here is more on the pleasure of relaxing in a natural setting with a gracious host. My guide, Natsuko Tajima, enjoys the tranquillity of the small chamber and adjoining garden the most.
“We can enjoy nature, the sound of water dripping — and the motorcycles,” she said with a laugh as someone roared past on a nearby street.
Like many of Kyoto’s machiya, Tondaya is a small bubble of the past surrounded by encroaching modernity.
Visitors with further interest in kimono should check out Marumasu-Nishimura, a yuzen dyeing workshop. While other textile techniques weave patterns or soak fabrics in dye to create a design, yuzen uses stencils and paintbrushes to apply dyes to fabric directly. This allows for very fine detail and subtle gradation of color as paints are mixed on the fabric. The yuzen techniques used for kimono require several stages of dyeing and the application of resists to prevent the dyes from bleeding, but Marumasu-Nishimura focuses on the fun parts: choosing a stencil design and painting. Once you’ve selected a design and a T-shirt or tablecloth, etc., you tack down the first stencil and apply very fine amounts of paint in small circular strokes. Repainting overlapping spots creates the delicate shades of color for which yuzen is famous; just make sure there is very little paint on the brush or it will glob and soak through the fabric. Later, a quick ironing under low heat at home will seal the paint on your masterpiece.
Lastly, the Women’s Association of Kyoto (WAK) covers everything else imaginable, from Japanese cooking to koto playing to geisha performances. The association’s offerings are split between hourlong crash courses in Japanese culture and visits to the homes of teachers of traditional arts. While there are several volunteer culture associations in Kyoto, WAK founder Michi Ogawa argues that by paying her teachers and interpreters she is able to choose from the best available and contribute to the preservation of these art forms.
WAK also smoothes some of the difficulties in such cultural exchanges by providing taxi pickup from hotels to the home and back, accompanied by an English-speaking interpreter. If the purpose of cultural experiences is mutual understanding, perhaps Jonathan Schwartz of El Paso, Texas, a participant in a WAK activity, understood his first experience of shodo (Japanese calligraphy) best. He, like the rest of his tour group, was struggling to write various philosophical kanji: eternity, harmony, friend, love. Looking down at the copy of “love” he was trying to emulate, he said, “Love is complicated — just like real life!”
Shunkoin (www.shunkoin.com) has 90-minute tours (¥2,000) starting from 9 a.m., 10:40 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Tondaya (www.tondaya.co.jp) offers tours and tea ceremonies (¥3,150) with kimono (¥7,350) and with a traditional Kyoto lunch (¥10,500), although it should be noted that the Nishijin Textile Center offers full-day kimono for ¥3,600. Marumasu-Nishimura prices range from ¥500 for a coaster to ¥3,000 for a tablecloth (www.kyo-komachi.com). WAK (www.wakjapan.com) offers courses from its center (¥3,150-¥5,250) or home visits (¥14,000+). The Kyoto City Tourist Office has a full listing of places for Zen meditation and tea ceremonies. Reserve all of above in advance.