Big in Japan 3

Onto the Philosopher’s Walk in Kyoto. Note the position of the apostrophe: we are talking about one philosopher here, Nishida Kitaro, a professor at the university, who walked here daily in the nineteen twenties, and whose work, rather pleasingly, is described as “path-breaking.” Nishida’s best-known philosophical concept is “Absolute Nothingness” but it’s difficult to imagine he came up with that idea on his daily constitutional, since the walk is full of life and interest.

The paved pathway runs either side of a small canal on the western side of the city at the base of the Higashiyama mountains. We approached along suburban streets that reminded me of the posher suburbs of Berlin or Hamburg. The walk is not a taxing one, and there is no particular advantage in starting at any one place, so we just joined it at the nearest convenient entrance and walked north.

At every turn on this walk, the visitor encounters something of beauty, whether it’s the autumnal colours which were so vivid when we were there, or the serenity of the shrines that line the pathway. One stop was at the Eikan-do temple, which has a pagoda whence panoramic views of Kyoto can be had.

We strolled further, past several smaller shrines, to the Honen-in temple of the Jodo sect, which is very rustic in appearance, with a thatched roof, and some fine examples of the raked-sand Zen gardens that we encountered many times on our trip.

We walked further, encountering quite a few well-fed and happy-looking cats, who seem to be part of the Philosopher’s Walk experience. They certainly must be among Japan’s most photographed cats: everyone stopped for a quick snap.

The main attraction on the walk is the fifteenth-century Ginkagu-ji, or the Silver Pavilion. Not that it’s silver – that was the original plan, apparently, but the shogun Yoshimasa, who wanted a silver version of the Kinkaku-ji golden pavilion in Kyoto city, was frustrated by the intervening war, and the plan was never executed. This is the most popular spot on the walk, and we saw tour groups there, whose whole experience of the walk was a bus to the entrance of the pavilion, a quick look round, and then back on the bus. They missed a lot. It has beautiful gardens, including a massive raked sand area. We loved the colours.

We walked down to the southern tip of the walk, where the large Nanzen-ji temple complex awaited us. This is a series of buildings, dating back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with much open space around it. We wandered around, enjoying the peace and the massive presence of history:

One curious feature of the area is the presence of a very western-looking aqueduct, built in the late nineteenth century to carry water via the canal to Kyoto. It seems incongruous amid all the formal temple architecture.

Our final stop on this walk was the lovely Tenjuan temple, a kind of haven dedicated to the Zen master who served Emperor Kameyama in his religious studies, and most notable now for its gardens. After a long day’s stroll, we really enjoyed sitting in the garden, particularly around the lake, where the carp are quite demanding:

This was a perfect day. The walk was full of historical interest, and had plenty of places to find refreshment and unusual crafts, of a definitely superior kind – no tourist tat here.

We had another day in Kyoto, which will be covered in the next instalment. Stay tuned.

CC BY-SA 4.0 Big in Japan 3 by Dr Rob Spence is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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