22 Days in Japan, Day 16: Zen and the Art of Staring at Rocks
Day 16? Already? Six days left. Normally, my goal each day is just to see as much as possible. But today I’ve got a different goal: to be enlightened. I’m referring to Ryoan-ji, of course.
It starts with a trip to the station.
Kyoto Station, that is – and honestly, one of the craziest buildings I’ve been inside in the past sixteen days. It’s huge, futuristic as all hell, and from the outside looks like a giant shipping boat built out of LEGOs.
This might give you an idea of the sheer scale of this place:
Okay, probably not. Inside, there’s all kinds of wacky things, like a wedding altar (maybe doubling as a church? not sure), a bakery that has more fruitcakes on display that I’ve probably seen in my entire life, and maybe thousands of stairs (and escalators). Oh, and completely random and unnecessary artsy-fartsy pieces spread throughout the place. I love it.
My destination today is Ryoan-ji, a Zen temple famed for its rock garden more than anything.
To get there, you need to take a thirty-minute bus ride. I manage to board the bus without much incident, and spend the entire trip staring out the window like a tourist.
Inside the grounds, there’s some nice scenery, mostly situated around a lake and surrounding trees. There’s a romantic-looking foot bridge that crosses a part of the lake; Monet would have appreciated it.
Before you can sit and gaze at the rocks, you have to enter a house and take off your shoes. Somebody PLEASE steal my shoes! I need a new pair but I’m too cheap to buy one in Japan unless I’m forced to.
The house contains some framed Japanese calligraphy, culminating in (I guess?) a large folding screen decorated with aggressive splashes of kanji. There’s also a small model of the rocks-that-I-have-yet-to-see along with some terse descriptions (all in Japanese, unfortunately). Or maybe they’re warnings. Like DO NOT MOVE THE MODEL ROCKS. Two other large bedroom-sized rooms here are completely bare except for a bunch of drawings on the walls, depicting a series of mountains.
After catching all of that, I’m finally at The Rocks.
At first glance, I’m not impressed.
The Rock Garden is a large outdoor area (separated from the crowd by, well, more rocks) filled with white gravel. Meticulously raked white gravel, I might add. Someone has created perfect horizontal lines running across the garden, and perfectly round patterns going around the rock islands. I don’t know they did this or how this is even possible, but it’s pretty incredible. So that’s mystery #1.
Mystery #2 is the rocks themselves. Not a mystery like Stonehenge, considering these rocks are tiny, irregular in shape, and fairly bland on the surface. But why these rocks? And what’s the meaning of the arrangement? I sit down and attempt to ponder the answer to these questions, but the comings and goings of tourists interfere with my internal reflection.
There are (supposed to be) a total of fifteen rocks, all but two of which are placed on top of some mossy dirt. The two standouts are flat rocks surrounding the leftmost mossy island. According to legend (and by legend, I really mean Wikipedia), normal people are supposed to see fourteen rocks from every angle; only the enlightened can see the fifteenth. Naturally, I can see only thirteen. I always knew I was special.
There’s another area leading to a different house, but it’s blocked off by a NO ADMITTANCE BEYOND THIS POINT sign. I briefly entertain the idea of pretending I’m German and walking past the sign, but think better of it. You don’t want to mess around with these holy places.
In the end, there’s no path of enlightenment for me, nor do I have any sort of epiphany that lets me see the fifteenth rock (or even the fourteenth rock).
The rest of my afternoon is spent wandering around the Sanjo/Kawaramachi area and its many side streets, going from covered mall to covered mall and shopping for stuff I didn’t know I needed. Among the highlights:
- The so-called “Ninja Kyoto Restaurant and Labyrinth” (along with a place next to it named, appropriately, “SWEETS OF NINJA”)
- Wandering into a music store and catching a live performance by Jpop singer Nakano Sayuri. And then seeing some random guy there wearing an unintelligible, but no less memorable, t-shirt that reads “YOUR MEMORY PUT IS LOOM”.
- Finding another RAGEBLUE store! One of the few affordable male clothing stores in Japan (and a little more upscale than the ubiquitous UNIQLO). And the clothes actually fit me. Perfectly.
- Furniture isn’t very cheap here. I spot a nice, basic recliner chair only to balk at the price: 167,000 yen, which translates to about 1400 bucks. Geez. Japan needs an IKEA.
That ends my exciting afternoon in Kyoto. For tonight’s event at Ichiensou, Yashi (the innkeeper) suggests a picnic on the “beach” (closest thing they have to a beach in Kyoto) overlooking the small river that runs through Gion. Apparently the beach is the hangout spot for bored teenagers and the equivalent of street performers: during our picnic, we get front-row seats to an impromptu fire juggling show and a male singer dressed in a suit and going absolutely nuts with his moves and Initial D-fueled dance track. It’s quite a spectacle.
Later, when most of the Ichiensou’ers get ready for bed, three of us form a splinter group and hit the town. We’re looking for a Pachinko parlor, but it turns out there’s some local rule where the parlors can’t stay open past 10 pm. Boy, that’s disappointing. After zigging and zagging through the Kyoto nightlife, we end up at a bar. Fun fact: one guy in our party is named Alejandro, so of course I have to ask him the obvious question. How’s Lady Gaga? His response: “I hate her!!”
Tomorrow is my last day in Kyoto, and I’m more than a bit sad.
- 22 Days in Japan, A Series
- 22 Days in Japan, Day 1: A Rainy Start
- 22 Days in Japan, Day 2: It's 4:03 and I can't sleep
- 22 Days in Japan, Day 3: Shibuya, Shrines, Love and AIDS
- 22 Days in Japan, Day 4: Akihabara, and Eight Sentences About Roppongi
- 22 Days in Japan, Day 5: Maybe I Should've Gone in April
- 22 Days in Japan, Day 6: I Went to a Wild Wild West Ramen Museum
- 22 Days in Japan, Day 7: At Least I Did Some Laundry
- 22 Days in Japan, Day 8: Don't Go To Nagoya Castle at 5 PM
- 22 Days in Japan, Day 9: Sick Day
- 22 Days in Japan, Day 10: A Trip to the Zoo
- 22 Days in Japan, Day 11: McDonald's Has Never Tasted So Good
- 22 Days in Japan, Day 12: Osaka Science Museum, Umeda, and Spa World
- 22 Days in Japan, Day 13: Den-den Town
- 22 Days in Japan, Day 14: Kyoto, Kiyomizu, and Kesha
- 22 Days in Japan, Day 15: Nara
- 22 Days in Japan, Day 16: Zen and the Art of Staring at Rocks
- 22 Days in Japan, Day 17: Nagano, Rain, and a Scary Bridge
- 22 Days in Japan, Day 18: Exploring Togakushi