I came to Japan with a few projects in mind and as my stay here develops some of my plans have fallen into place, while it has become apparent that others will not be achievable on this trip. But there will always be the possibility of another time?
One of the little side projects that I had in mind was to buy some ‘kanna’. Kanna is the Japanese word for sharp edged tool, so it can be applied to razors, knives, wood working planes as well as potters turning tools. In particular, I’m here to find the source of the very special and quite rare, tungsten carbide tipped turning tools that the porcelain potters here use.
I have tracked down and visited 4 potters supply shops now, I find something of interest in each one. Today I followed a lead up into the hills to find a small workshop where I’m told that there is a man who actually makes the tools from scratch. I’ve been lucky enough to meet someone, who knows someone who can take me there
Best wishes from Steve at home in the natural habitat of the hand made Kanna and nobebera.
Kyoto is a marvellous city for someone like me who loves Japanese culture. It has so much to offer. I just love to spend some time detouring around the back streets and lanes on my way to what-ever project I have on for that day. It’s easy to navigate, as it is all set out on a grid system, it’s flat for the most part and very safe, even at night.
Wandering around in Kyoto is a very interesting way to spend time. One place that I always have to visit on my way to the antique sellers district is the Terramachi covered market and the cross street Nishiki market where all the traditional foods were sold.
Nishiki still has a lot of tradition there, but the tourist shops are creeping in, specifically because of people like me visiting. I try not to buy plastic crap, but others do apparently, so the foods sellers are being slowly squeezed out in favour of tourist junk, and as a tourist, I’m responsible in part. Isn’t it amazing how we kill that what we most cherish!
Still, although I don’t buy much food here, only finger food to eat on the go. I just don’t have a kitchen here, so there isn’t much point. I still can’t resist the stroll up and back along the Nishki street, taking in all the exotic sights and smells.
I love the smell of the pickle stand and the grilled fish stall, but one of my favourite shops is the knife makers shop, Aritsugu. They have been in Kyoto forever. Since the 1500’s I believe, this is currently the 18th generation. I wonder if his son will carry on? No pressure! The family used to be samurai sword makers, but when peace broke out, they changed to making domestic kitchen knives instead. I have bought a few knives here over the years, and one of the lovely things about it is that the knives on display are only samples. Each one represents a tray-ful of others. All waiting in their series ranks to be chosen and finished off. Each knife is almost ready tho sell, but needs that final honing and polish on the wet stone to get the edge extra fine and ready for work. Then, you can also get your name engraved in the blade to personalise it. At no extra cost. I have bought a few knives here, mostly for my chef son and other friends, but not today. I’m on a tight budget and I’m only here for the entertainment.
When I emerge from the markets, Karate. Empty handed. I have to wait to cross the street, because there is an anti-war demonstration going on. It is about a kilometre long all the way down the street. Very orderly, with precise breaks, so that we can cross the road. I can’t read any of the verbiage, but I gather that they are protesting against the new changes proposed to go before the Diet – parliament. That will allow the Japanese military to change their role from a strictly defense force to something else, somewhat more ‘off-shore’ and possibly aggressive?
No trip to Kyoto would be complete for a potter without a visit to Kanjiro Kawai’s House and Museum. Secluded away in a back lane just off the main road. It is a quiet, tranquil respite from the traffic and a chance to go back 50 years or so to its heyday. It doesn’t seem to be as impressive this time around as it was the first time I went there 30 years ago. But is still good. I’m amazed that they could fire the 7 chamber climbing kiln smack in the middle of the city like this, right up until 1979. It must have been filthy!
I stumble across a giggling twitter of girls who have just emerged from having a Maiko-makeover and are out to enjoy the Gion district in a mufti-reversal.
After a long days walk, I reward myself with a cup of tea at the temple in the afternoon. It’s a great caffeine hit to keep me going for the rest of the afternoon.
Fond regards from Steve in Kyoto
It’s the 25th of the month here in Kyoto, so that means it the day for the Kitano markets.
The markets are held in the outer grounds and parking area of the Kitano Tenmangu Shrine in north-west Kyoto, it’s about 40 mins on the bus. The bus leaves the Kyoto station bus terminal pretty regularly, from stand B2. cast Y230.
As I set off to walk to the station bus terminal, a ginkgo leaf is blown from a tree in the nearby Higashi-honganji temple and lands at my feet. Surely a good sign for the day to come.
The Kitano Tenmangu Shrine is a lovely complex of old buildings and the gates and gate house are very nice.
It’s been raining all night and now sporadically in the morning. When I get there, the market is a small, sad, version of what it is usually. In better weather, there can be upwards of 800 stall-holders, but just now you’d be lucky to count 200. It’s a wet affair today. This market has a bit of a focus on old wares and ‘antiques’, as well as all the other paraphernalia that turns up at markets. There is quite a bit of pottery here today, possibly because, pottery doesn’t matter if it gets wet. All the fabric stalls are pretty well shrouded in plastic tarps.
There isn’t anything really special here for me today. However, I do buy a small porcelain soba noodle cup, from the Edo period. A nice little object. and I bought it stone, cold, soba.
Today I took the short train ride to Inari, to visit the shinto shrine there. I’m not religious, but I find temples and shrines interesting, They can be built in the most extraordinary places. Totally awe-inspiring on occasion. Today I chose Inari, because it is so close to Kyoto where I am based. I haven’t managed to get there on my previous 4 visits, so today was my chance. There a lot of people getting off the train and the temple platform, and even more already there. The entrance is very crowded, especially for a Monday, weekday.
I’m informed by the very helpful staff of the temple, who have set up a table marked ‘English Information’, that has my attention straight away. They tell me that nearly all the signage is in Japanese, so I should take this piece of paper, written in English to help me navigate the site. I am grateful for this small courtesy, It helps to have some sort of directional guide. They also tell me that it takes about 2 hours to do the full climb up to the top of the hill. Hopefully climbing down is faster. This is some sort of test for the devout, so that counts me out already, but I’m up for it, just for the experience.
I set off along with the multitudes. We have to thin out a little to allow us all to pass through the first gate. We are all shoulder to shoulder as we pass the various early stages of the walk. Soon the path divides into two, one up on the left and the other for returning pilgrims on the right. These paths are noticeably narrower, so we thin out a little more. We emerge. into a cleared space and then start the climb. Don’t know how many steps there are, as I can’t read the signage. At the Moro Temple near Nara, not that far from here, they told us that there were 700 steps, more or less straight up the mountain. I could believe it.
Here, it’s a little different we wind and wander around the hill for a couple of kilometres. It’s only a gentle climb at first, but soon gets serious, then steeper. Luckily there are small places to stop and spend money on iced tea, ice cream and even meals. There is no charge to visit this shrine, but there is a lot of money changing hands at each of the half-dozen way stations. I have brought my own bottle of water, but it is soon gone. It’s a hot day, 30oC and swelteringly humid with it. I’m soon dripping in sweat. Even if I’m not religious, a walk like this is probably good for me. Not so for a lady ahead, who takes a fall and has to be carried out on a stretcher by the rescue squad. They passed us running up the stairs half an hour ago. I’m full of admiration for these guys. They are so fit.
It crosses my mind that if the walk is 4 km and with all the twists and turns and wriggles in the path, it is probably more than that, then there is the fact that we are also undulating and always climbing, then the 4 ks on the 2D map might be 5 k on the ground? it then strikes me that each step would be 50 cm. normally, but since we are climbing stairs for a lot of the time, perhaps my steps are only 200 mm to 300mm. for some of the time. Maybe I will take as many as 12 to 15,000 steps to do the full circuit? Maybe not, but it’s this sort of thing that goes through a person’s mind as he walks/climbs for and hour or two.
I eventually reach the top. Inari is the patron of manufacturing, so I can claim that I’ve made it!
The crown of the hill is a series of graveyards or cemeteries. It’s a long way to go to die and there have been times during the ascent when that possibility has crossed my mind. So what did I find there?
A good view, a slight breeze. Some marketing. Is nowhere sacred?
I find going down instead of being easy, is almost as hard, It creates a lot of pressure on the toes as I descend one step at a time. It really worked my calf muscles going up, now my toes coming down. I eventually reach the bottom again. It’s past midday and really heating up now. I reach the level ground and a place to stop and rest, but instead of rest I get accosted by a friendly Japanese man who wants to discuss the subtleties of the English language with me. I’m not the right person to ask. I failed English at school. Still, I do my best to answer his questions. He wants me to explain to him why English is such a complex language, with so many words that can be used to say the same thing, like broken and shattered. I apologise for my lack of knowledge, but do my best to explain the difference, it;’s all about degrees of difference. I go on to explain that English isn’t just one language. It’s a conglomerate, with roots in Greek, Latin, French, German and Danish. England was invaded many times. Everybody left something behind. He goes on to ask if I’m a Christian, all westerners are Christians, aren’t they? I tell him No. Not everyone. He asks if I’m Catholic? No. Am I Anglican? No. what religion am I then? I’m not. I don’t have a religion. Then I’m a heathen in Christ’s eyes! Possibly, but I’m not really interested, thank you!
I take my leave, I can see where this is going. When I arrived at the bottom. My legs were like jelly, I had to keep moving my weight from leg to leg to get comfortable, so the time being harassed by the stranger was a useful time to get my legs back. I feel better now, knowing that I’m a heathen. I somehow feel a bit pious about it. Can you be a pious Heathen?
I have an interest in tea, only minor in the scheme of things, but it’s been consistent in my life. I love the old tea houses, especially when the thatch gets that mossy look of age, that special wabi, sabi look. There are some especially intuitive, gifted and sensitive people out there to be sure. I’m not one of them, but in my better moments, I can see and appreciate the profoundly beautiful things that they have left behind for me to experience. It’s a joy that highlights my day.
One one of my walks I come across a temple where you can take tea. So I do. I take the time. I sit and I ponder. It isn’t in my vague plan for today, but it is very much welcome and appreciated. This is time unplanned and well spent. The caffeine really enlivens my step afterwards too.
I did my washing today. What more could you want?
I’m finding on this visit to Kyoto that so many of the temples are being re-constructed, but not in a Post Modern way. Rather it’s in a Post Ancient, or using ancient posts kind of way. Most of the work seems to involve renewing the roofs. I was here more or less this time last year and we were able to walk through some of the Higashi-Honganji temple, even though the tradesmen were in doing the work. It was amazing to see them build such a big scaffolding structure over the end of the temple, all set up on tracks, so that as the work progresses, they can winch the covering building along over the next bit, until it’s finished. It will apparently take some years to complete.
The Largest-Cast-Bronze-Buddha-in-the-world-Temple, Todai-Ji, at Nara is now the Largest-Cast-Bronze-Buddha-Under-a-Temporary-Tin-Roof-Buddha-Temple-in-the-world. Everybody has to have something that defines us as special, even buddhists. It’s all about nothingness, but the biggest building in which to find nothingness seems to be important. Even the Kiyomizu-dera Temple is under reconstructive surgey at the moment.
I’ve been visiting quite a few temples while I’m here. There are temples featuring wood, moss, stone, raked gavel, water, gold and silver(not), Apparently it’s important to be about something while your contemplating nothing. If zen is a sense of cohesion and tranquility found in emptiness, then I’m on the right track. I have come to terms with some sort of concept of emptiness while I’ve been visiting the temples here. Firstly, my wallet is a lot emptier, that’s for sure, I’m pretty certain about that. But one can never tell. Maybe it’s only an illusion?
My tummy is a lot emptier, as I’m on the 2nd day of fasting now and as I search for emptiness and nothingness. Emptiness sure feels like something to me right now. I’m finding it hard to tell, when or if I’ve found it. Nothing is a hard concept to achieve and inhabit while still being able to tell the difference. So I can safely claim that I have successfully found nothing so far. However, I’ll keep looking, just in case I don’t find more of it.
I start the day very early to beat the heat. The sun is casting oblique shadows across the land. The Golden Temple is beautiful. It too was under reconstruction on one of my previous visits. Now it’s all out of its wrappers and showing off in its splendid, glittering, blingy sort of way. So quiet, peaceful and unassuming. Hard to notice that it is even there sort of attitude, while screaming, “Look at me”!
Money, wealth and worldly achievements don’t matter apparently. I suppose that this includes gold? Just the sort of place to look for nothing. The guy who built it was really ripped off. When the builders covered it with gold at the end, they covered all the windows too. So he couldn’t even see out to look on the quiet lake at its foot or feet, I’m not too sure if temples have one or many? I think that he could have saved a lot of money and put in double glazing instead of gold leaf. The insulation value would be heaps better than gold and the view improved out of sight, well, actually into sight.
Still, he did better that the guy who built the Silver Pavilion Temple. He didn’t even get any silver on it. The builders shot through before the silver was applied and all that they left was a big pile of white builders sand on the site. I did eventually find some silver there. It was all dropped into the wishing well pond. I wonder if it works – wishing I mean. As I’m looking for nothing, I didn’t bother throwing anything in, I don’t want my wish to come true. I might get something, while what I’m really after is nothing.
The weather changes while I am here and there is a storm, it’s been coming for a while now. I can sense it in the air and in me. I’m out on the path around the garden and it’s teeming down.
I stand and watch the not-quite Silver Temple melt away in the rain.
The storm has resulted in every one leaving. They scurry for the security of the visitors centre.
I’m here alone.
The path is empty.
The world disolves.
There is only the rain.
I walk across town to Ryoan-ji. Here the path is straight and true, but also strangely empty. It’s mid day now and the sun is almost directly overhead. The storm clouds are gone and the sun is beating down. It’s hot, muggy and humid.
Finally at Ryoan-ji I start to come to grips with the the paradox inherent in Zen. At Ryoan-ji, you don’t have to pay to walk around the lake and grounds like you do at all the other temples. Here you only pay to go in and see the raked gravel and the 15 stones. Here’s the paradox. When you go in, you can’t see the 15 stones, You pay for 15, but only ever see 14. If you walk to the other side you can now see the missing stone, but one of the original stones is now obscured. There are only ever 14 stones. Even though there are 15! Deep stuff! I paid money for this.
It’s hard to take it all in. Even for my little camera. I sit and think about this for quite a while. But nothing comes.
Janine and I were recently reminded of the Zen concept of non-aquisitiveness when she spent a bit of time with the Tibetan Buddhist Monks. As a fund raiser, they sold her a Tibetan, hand-woven, woollen, mobile phone cover. There’s an example of encouraging non-acquisitiveness for you.
Best wishes from Steve in Kyoto, on the empty path, and not doing much about nothing,