A chunk of time ago, I got to spend 5 weeks in the Kansai region of Japan. Friends were teaching English in Kobe and Osaka and generously offered me a space to lay my head at night. During the days I’d wander – a particular favourite was Kyoto – and do my best to figure out the transportation system and in the evenings I’d make my way back to enjoy dinner with my friends – the perfect combination really for a solo traveler: new and adventurous in the morning, “old” and familiar in the evenings.
If we’re lucky enough through our travels, we’re rewarded with memories that remain alive far longer than all the others. A sight, a smell, a noise or a piece of music that takes us back to that moment when they first occurred. For me, in Kyoto, Japan, that place was the Ryoan-ji Temple and that item, a scented bookmark.
I bent down on one knee, lacing up the hiking shoes that I’d removed before entering the temple. The day-pack on my back slid to the right, a distraction. I stood, reflexively stretching my back out.
A quiet voice behind me queried politely, “You’re Canadian?”
The head monk stood lightly behind me, very much in the demeanour with which you would expect a head monk to stand. I’d forgotten about the Canadian flag stitched to my pack.
“Yes”, I replied. “Have you ever been to Canada?” How does one carry on a conversation with a head Zen monk?
He shook his head and chuckled softly. “No, no”, he breathed, lowering his head as if the idea struck him as worth consideration.
The Japanese tour group that had arrived ahead of me and gathered on the temple’s veranda had slowly drifted away. I’d almost not come to see this small temple known most for its beautiful zen garden.
Perusing the Lonely Planet Kyoto guidebook, I’d come across a brief mention of a small temple, Ryoanji, with a highly acclaimed Japanese rock garden. It wasn’t highlighted as one of the main temples to see in Kyoto – and there are many, many temples to choose from in that city – but the description of the garden as one of the finest examples of its kind had intrigued me.
I made my way through the building as soundlessly and as gingerly as I could, as if one heavy or misplaced step might traumatize the monks or this structure they lived within, a Zen temple that had existed since the 1400s. Every creaking floorboard made me feel like a boorish interloper.
Stepping out onto the veranda, I was confronted with a group of 20 – 30 middle-aged Japanese visitors. I could try to admire the garden with them or I could return inside and wait for their tour group to move on. It was an easy choice. My time was my own – it’s one of the big reasons I love roaming solo. I wanted the chance to sit in silence on the veranda and absorb whatever lesson or wisp of wisdom I could from those who created the kare-sansui – the zen garden – and from those who’d sat in contemplation before me. Perhaps I could learn something from sitting, observing, watching.
But what was I watching? Nothing changes or moves in a rock garden, not in minutes or hours. 15 boulders were placed purposefully and meticulously, only 14 of which can be seen from the veranda – it is said that achieving enlightenment is the only way to see all at the same time. A calmness really did settle over me as I sat and stared, my gaze slow and calm, floating from one to the next. It was like I was studying them, but for what purpose, I didn’t know.
I can’t remember the sounds – in my memory it’s quiet – although I imagine instances of floorboards creaking, intervals of hushed Japanese voices and lulls of rustling leaves in the breeze. I do remember the smell of incense, a scent I’ve known almost my whole life. Weekend visits with my grandmother to the Chinese Buddhist temple…. It’s a dark and rich aroma that brings with it a warmth and acceptance. I’ve always felt safe and quieted within the walls of that temple and there, in Kyoto, seated on the Ryoanji’s terrace, the sharp, pungent incense comforts me, lending this place and this city that is so very far from my home, a familiarity.
I wanted to sit longer, hypnotized by the stones, the gravel, the safe enclosed space of a hundreds-year old structure that stood behind, below and before me. There is a release in the need to do nothing more than sit and observe.
Eventually, it was time for me to leave. I made my way to the small gift counter near the main door. I wanted something that would always remind me of this temple, where I’d done nothing momentous or remarkable, but rather, was stilled. A package of 3 bookmarks caught my glance, paper envelopes roughly 3 inches in height by 1 inch in width, wrapped around a scented object, a straw length knotted at the top with faint printed images and calligraphy on the surface. To this day, almost 12 years later, the fragrance remains: soft, powdery and slightly floral.
The head monk continued to chuckle softly at my question. As I pondered what to say next, he looked up, smiled and began to sing the first few bars of the Canadian national anthem. “Oh Canada! Our home and native land!….”
What do you do but listen, smile and say thank you.
No pics for this entry at the moment: I was shooting in film those days and can’t find the negatives just yet (what comes from living out of a storage unit and boxes), but for more information on the temple, have a look at its website: http://www.ryoanji.jp/smph/eng/index.html.
What places still have a special hold on your heart and mind?
‘Til next time….