May 24, 2016
Due to my five blisters, I woke up wanting one simple thing – to spend the day at a slower pace. With beautiful gardens, great food, a bit of solitude, and perhaps some beer – preferably all enjoyed outside. Well, ask and Japan will deliver in spades.
We started the morning at Nijo Castle, originally built in the 17th century to house the powerful Tokugawa shoguns, and remained the home for the imperial court even after the capital moved to Edo – now Tokyo. Nijo Castle was also the location where the decision was made to centralize and transfer power from the shogunate to the Meiji empire. The castle grounds were very large, with two concentric moats, gardens, and beautiful buildings comprised of large rooms with beautifully painted walls and wooden carvings. I noted that the floors creaked loudly, and Michael informed me that this was intentional in order to prevent assassins from creeping around in the evening / me from secretly getting a late night snack.
After a little history, we headed to Arashiyama – a lovely neighborhood in NW Kyoto known for its temples and nature scrapes. Upon arriving at the famous bamboo grove, we thought we were in for another day of battling tourists for space. Looking up into the high reaching bamboo, you could almost believe you were somewhere serene. But then you’d be brought back to earth by a gaggle of Japanese school children or a British tourist shouting about their selfies.
Regardless, the bamboo grove was truly remarkable. It’s difficult to capture on film the blue and white light shining through the soft green bamboo. Also hard to describe, the bamboo stalks are each so thin, simple, tall and straight. They are not crowded together or individually grand. But it is precisely their simple sameness and their separateness that makes having them fill your entire field of vision so mesmerizing – like the first time you look out onto uninterrupted ocean.
To chase down some serenity, we purchased tickets to the private garden of Denjiro Okochi – a Japanese film star popular in the first half of the 20th century who used his vast wealth to build a beautiful garden. The garden path was circular, so we wandered through various phases of it, discovering along the way small fountains, sculptures, the occasional temple or open space, and the most pristine version of Japanese garden scape I’ve ever seen. A mix of trees, flowers, moss, and shrubbery – all manicured to perfection – were planted in such a way to direct the eye to a particular sight or vista, to the next pathway of risen stones or stairs, or to the sudden fact that you were enclosed on all sides by nature.
Feeling revived and hungry, we left the garden and stumbled upon a tiny hut with casual outdoor seating facing the river. It turned out to be a family-run restaurant, orchestrated by a matriarch armed with very little English and a home made photo album that served as a menu. We spent the next two hours sitting riverside, watching man powered boats drift by and taking in the mountainside, eating the most delicious tempura and beef udon bowls. I wasn’t sure I’d ever leave.