April 4, 2005
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Tofukuji Temple

1 (1) 2Points of View
(1)Various materials (roof tiles, stones, white gravel, wood)
(2)Walking through the corridors
(3)Patterns made by moss and stone

This complex is filled with many visitors, especially during the autumn season, and is one of the best autumn spots in Kyoto. The ravine and hillside in the complex are beautifully covered with Japanese maples, ablaze with reds and yellows in autumn. Outside the autumn season, though, it is not so crowded for such an attractive spot, and you can enjoy the complex at leisure. The highlights of this temple are the autumn leaves seen from the bridge and the garden created by the modern-day expert. Now, let’s look at the complex in terms of its key areas, the differences in materials.

On arriving in the complex, there are a number of buildings ahead, and among them is a bigger gate to the south of the site that attracts many people. This is the oldest gate, and is one of the biggest in Japan. The surfaces of the wooden buildings have turned black due to long-term oxidization. As time passes, such surfaces change to a black color, becoming mellow and elegant like malt whiskey in a cask.

The main building of this complex, known as the Hojo, is very famous for its garden. Entering the building and moving inward, you first encounter the garden to the south. Many tall, jagged stones are set in a sea of white raked gravel. The lines in the raked gravel represent the flow of water in the Zen garden. Water is always flowing, and has a feeling of timelessness. This gravel is fresh, shines white, and has no sense of passing time.

Sitting on the veranda to the south, you can see that the standing and laying stones are arranged in a loose pattern on the plain of white gravel. Compared with other temples, the contrast of the standing and laying rocks is very clear and sharp. Looking at the stones from the side, they also appear very flat, and are arranged to be easily visible mainly from the front of the garden. They are arranged using the garden as a stage, with the veranda as audience seating. In this regard, the stones, used as a sort of on-stage device, have the air of a work of modern art. The stones in this garden are relatively new and have no moss, and therefore do not suggest the passage of time. Stones take on an older air only as moss grows on them.

Moving along the veranda, you will see another garden to the north. In this garden, stones and moss create checkerboard patterns. You can enjoy this geometric design made from natural elements, which is seemingly contrary to nature. In this case, nature is used like a geometrical design tool – the checkerboard pattern, with its regular arrangement, merges with a carpet of moss, like sugar cubes breaking down and dissolving in a liquid.

Leaving the main hall, one can walk around the site and go towards the wooden corridor to the Tsuten-bashi Bridge. Columns stand here at regular intervals from each other. Walking along the corridor, at first you cannot see the scenery outside because of the visual density of the columns. As you move along the corridor, the visual distance between the columns increases and the range of view gradually opens. In this way, visitors can enjoy the continuous change in the scenery outside. Such corridors are rather a fun way of enjoying the scenery.

Leaving the corridors and walking around the site, you can see the black and silver roof tiles. These tiles are relatively new compared to the building because they are changed regularly, usually once every hundred years. These tiles reflect the sunlight and shine an elegantly plain silver, a color that only newer things can have.

The wooden columns, the white gravel in the garden, the stones placed in the white gravel and the roof tiles on the corridors. Only the wood ages as time passes, and the passage of time gives it a plain elegance. This elegance, known as shibumi in Japanese, has represented an important part of the essence of Japan since the time of Senno Rikyu, one of the founders of the tea ceremony.

July 19, 2004
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Mii-dera Temple

1 (4) 2 (3)Points of View
(1)The shape of roofs made from tree bark
(2)Roofs of the building for viewing the moon
(3)The atmosphere of the site

This temple is located on the outskirts of Kyoto city near Biwa-ko Lake, the largest lake in Japan. The precinct approach is lined with lots of trees, the tender green of new leaves creating a leafy shade over it. Moss completely covers the low stone walls along the path, and quietness softly envelops the precinct. What attracts more than anything else is the buildings with their elegantly shaped roofs and feeling the beauty of these cypress-shingled structures.This is the best place to enjoy the beauty of such roofs.

Many carpenters say that the high point of traditional Japanese architecture lies in the curving of its roofs. When building structures, more energy is focused on creating elegant roof curves, and this has a significant influence on the appearance of buildings.

The overall atmosphere of cypress-shingled buildings is light and sharp, as the roofs are made from bark rather than tiles. Viewed from the front, the outline of the eaves is not straight but rises a little on both sides. This is because if the outline is completely straight, it appears to droop at the sides, which doesn’t look good. The rising curved line has the effect of increasing the sharpness of the building overall.

Incidentally, Japanese roofs protrude considerably from the outer wall, and their eave brackets are quite large. Junichiro Tanizaki, one of the greatest novelists in Japan, said that roofs in Japan were like umbrellas, while those in the West were like hats. The role of the space under large eave brackets is an obscure one, but is very important in Japanese architecture. The space is neither inside nor outside; although it is part of the outside of the building, it is spatially and functionally under the building’s influence. The large eaves protect against sunlight and rain, like umbrellas, and even prevent these elements from coming in through open windows, while allowing wind to enter.

If a garden is located around a building, larger eaves can spatially connect the garden and the building in a gentle way, thus bringing the garden under the influence of the building.

In this way, the space under the eaves plays one of the most important roles in traditional Japanese architecture, so creating elegant roof curves is one of the most important objectives for carpenters. Roofs and eaves not only form the main parts of structures but are also important functionally and aesthetically.

April 13, 2002
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Katsura Imperial Villa

map2-1Points of View
(1)Arrangement of every element
(2)A choice selection of materials
(3)A great deal of time and effort

Katsura Imperial Villa, formerly a villa for the aristocracy, is undoubtedly one of the most excellent and elegant creations in Japan. This villa is my most recommended sightseeing spot in Kyoto, and indeed in the whole country. The villa was created using ordinary natural materials such as wood, bamboo, stones and vegetation, but care was taken to pick out only the very best materials. The arrangement of every element in the garden, the buildings, the trees and the stepping-stones was masterfully planned and painstakingly executed, and took a great deal of time and effort. Now, let’s go and see the villa.

A first look at the villa in perspective reveals its trees, paths and architecture arranged in the center of the pond, with some of the buildings connected by stepping-stone paths. The pond plays an important role, as in those days pleasure boating was a favorite activity here, and locating the pond at the center of the garden adds a coolness in summer. In addition, due to the continuous changes in vista along the paths surrounding the pond and the physical effect of the surface as a mirror, the scenery is full of variety and seems more expansive than it actually is.

Walking around the garden, the progression of scenery consists of an exquisite combination of the pond, trees, stones and buildings. As there are no needless elements in the garden and the right elements are placed in the right places, the overall atmosphere is one of good order. Visitors must walk on the stones to move from one building to another. Some of these stones are arranged at a certain distance from each other, while others are paved. The stones are all different in color and shape but create a sense of unity, and some stones of an irregular shape are deliberately used as stepping-stones. All these stones are very nice in color, texture and appearance.

Next, let’s take a look at the buildings, which are quite simple. Their walls are painted in quiet colors, and there are fewer pictures painted on the fusuma papered sliding doors than in other buildings. All views of the garden from inside the buildings perfectly match the simplicity of the buildings themselves. These garden views take the place of pictures on the fusuma, making it unnecessary to paint images of artificial landscapes on them. When the fusuma are closed as a room partition, there are no pictures in the rooms, but when they are opened up a view of the garden appears in their place.

Looking carefully at the materials used in the villa, one can see that only the best were chosen. Visitors may be captivated by the beautiful grain of the columns, the board used for the shutter casing and the floor of the hallway. Grain was used as a kind of design concept, and each shutter case features grain of the same pattern. The wood for the hallway floors is different from that in other areas, and the more it is worn underfoot, the more polished it becomes.

As a whole, the ordinary materials used in the villa contain a hidden beauty that is not overwhelming, but at the same time is far from dull. The building is a result of a careful selection of materials and placement of elements. Although the villa is not so big, it took a great deal of time and effort to make. One of the features of Japanese culture is the use of energy, which is used to make things not only bigger and more decorative but also more elaborate, and to hide beauty inside things. Another cultural feature is that the supreme is made from the ordinary; exquisite work has been made using ordinary materials through careful selection and investment of time and effort.

January 22, 2002
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Daily words about Japanese culture

About Shinto, Japanese domestic religion, part 2, Sep. 15

What’s the difference between Shinto and Buddhism?

Roughly speaking, Shinto is a religion of worshiping the nature and ancestor. On the other hand, Gods of Buddhism can solve their personal trouble or annoyance, they think.

A shrine is a place to worship Gods of Shinto. People go there to thank Gods for the rich nature because Japanese in those days lived by cultivating fields and rice paddies, not by hunting and whether or not they were able to live was largely up to the weather condition.

Japanese also worship their ancestor as they brought lands into cultivation. Thanks to them, they can grow crops in the lands.

(Note that some Gods of Shinto are for making money, making them clever and heal their diseases. But some of them were made for commercial purpose, in Edo period, 400 years ago.)

Where do the Gods live?

Shrines has more trees than temples partly because the Gods of Shinto are thought to live in the big trees, big stones and mountains. The Gods like the evergreen trees, like sakaki tree, cedar and pine. That’s because the green all year round means that the power of the Gods will last forever. The rich green in shrine also makes it more sacred.

To be continued.

About Shinto, Japanese domestic religion, part 1, Sep. 15

Japanese go to shrine to pray at New Year’s Day, have a wedding ceremony at a church, hold a funeral at a temple, hold a Halloween party and dress a tree at the Christmas season. Most Japanese naturally do the different religious rite partly because they are happy to take in many kinds of foreign thoughts and custom. This tendency is quite connected with Shinto, Japanese traditional religion. Now, I will explain Shinto briefly.

Shinto is more peaceful and inclusive than Christianity, Judaism and Islam because Shinto have never done the religious war and have naturally coexisted with the Buddhism. Shinto has many kinds of Gods and people pray to each God, up to the situation. They thank God of sun in a sunny day, and God of rain in a rainy day to make the crop grow well. In an earthquake, they pray to God of earth. Shinto has accepted the diversity and coexistence.

To be continued.

About the purity, on Sep. 14

Japanese seem to be clean-loving.

For example, homemakers in Japan used to make every part of house clean, wiping out the floor, the sink, the bath and the toilette. People in temples or shrines sweep up in the precinct and clean the floor inside the building every day before opening. When I was an elementary school student, we used to clean every part of buildings in school, from the floor and the ground to the street in front of the school after lunch. Japanese traditional restaurants are the same as homemakers and monks, and they sprinkle water around the building and on the approach to the building, roji, to look clean and get it cool before opening. All the people except businesspersons tend to do the cleaning every day in Japan.

Three reasons why they love the cleaning. At first, some Gods of Shinto, Japanese native religion, love the purity and dislike the dirtiness because the dirtiness is strongly connected with the sin for Gods. Secondly, cleaning is regarded as one of the religious austerities in Zen school, which is one of Buddhism sects and came from China. The tea ceremony brought in Zen lessons in Muromachi era, about 500 years ago, and some lessons in Zen sect have been prevailing among the public through the tea ceremony. Thirdly, it connects with Japanese sense of beauties, less and smaller. The more sophisticated things are, the less and smaller they are. The tendency can be connected with the cleaning.

The three elements let Japanese love the purity.

About the eternity, on Sep. 13

Japanese think the eternity as variable things, not as the stability. They think that all the things in the world will change as time goes by.

For example, the first sentence of “the tale of Heike”, one of the most famous classics story in Japan, is the following:

Gion Shouja no kane no koe
Syogyo mujo no hibiki ari…

Those means that all the things will change and have gone down eventually, as the same as one of the most important principle of the Buddhism.

Several seasons in Japan come in cycle: as spring comes, many flowers come out. As autumn comes, leaves fall down. And as the next spring….

The eternity is the endless cycle for Japanese.

About nature, on Sep. 12

Japanese have loved the surrounding nature partly because its change of seasons attract them very much.

Japan has much water and forests, and its looking changes throughout the years: the pink hue of cherry trees in spring, the verdant green of moss and forest in summer, the yellow and red of maple trees in autumn and the white of snow in winter.

They has made the most of beauty, first of all, unlike Chinese goodness and Western truth, perhaps because of the rich nature.

By the way, Japanese wooden house was designed to avoid the humidity and swelter in mid summer, and not to get them hurt the house. So the houses are very open and can get a good breeze, quite unlike reinforced concrete buildings now. The houses have many openings, divided by the pillars, on the outer walls and on the opening are set up a sliding door, called fusuma or akari-shoji. Just sliding the doors can get in a comfortable air.

The open house has another effect. You can see better the outside from the inside of the house because of the openness and the opening can link the inside to the outside. The big opening in a house partly drove people improve the garden.

The garden seemed to be originally designed to savour the beauties of the nature fully.

January 9, 2002
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Shisendo Temple

3 (2) 4Points of View
(1)An immense scaled garden
(2)Exquisite maintenance
(3)The change of seasons

This building is famous for the mild atmosphere in its garden. White sand covers the surface of the ground, and well-maintained azaleas and maple trees are planted there. The greatest fascination is that the garden brings a feeling of relaxation. It is not so big and consists only of ordinary natural materials (unlike the Katsura Imperial Villa). Walking inside the site, the mild atmosphere surrounds you. Now, let’s go to the garden.

After a few minutes spent walking up the gentle slope from the bus stop, you arrive at the site. Seen from the outside, simple bamboo fences the site, and a small rustic gate welcomes you. A few mild stone stairs can be seen through the opening of the gate, and they draw you pleasantly in.

Going through the gate and up the stairs, you pass along a straight walkway to the building. The path, as well as the gate, is simple and narrow. The middle of the path is paved, and is just less than a meter wide. A sheet of white sand covers the ground closely along both sides of the pavement. The path is also fenced with low bamboo, while trees and bamboo grow over the fence. This vegetation largely shuts out the sunlight, and the light that does get through falls softly onto the ground. Every morning the path, as well as the garden, is immaculately cleaned. The surface is not only swept using bamboo brooms, but is also lightly marked with striped patterns which add a transitory beauty and lead the visitor to the realm of purity and tranquility.

As soon as you walk along the path, you glimpse the building over low hedges before arriving. Entering the building, you sit on tatami mats as a place for viewing the garden. The ground outside is covered with a sheet of white sand, while spherically trimmed azaleas and maple trees grow there. The tree-covered hillside outside the garden functions as borrowed scenery. A scattering of the vivid pink of azaleas in spring and the yellow and red of maple leaves in autumn means that it is beautiful throughout the year. The surface of the garden is also raked with stripes, and the azalea shrubbery is trimmed so as not to obstruct the view outside the garden from the building.

Going outside, visitors can walk in the garden, passing along another narrow path enclosed by stone walls and bamboo fences to access it. The garden is roughly composed of an upper and a lower part. From the building, only the upper part can be seen. The lower part has a small pond that cannot be seen from the building because of the azaleas, and it is fed by a brook leading to a stream outside. Many kinds of vegetation are arranged considering the size of the garden, so that people can enjoy the change of seasons.

The garden seen from the veranda looks neat but not simple, as raked sand, azaleas, maple trees and the surrounding elements of nature are well arranged in the picture frame formed by the columns and thresholds. The spotless ground and exquisite maintenance of the vegetation also add to the feeling of neatness.

The primary characteristic of Japanese gardens is their purity. Many famous gardens in Japan are invariably well-maintained, and early in the morning there are no leaves or litter on their paths or in their grounds. The most important factor in making a Japanese garden is purity, rather than the kinds of vegetation, the placement of the pond or the choice selection of stones. Even if the pond, trees and stones were arranged and selected perfectly, a lower level of maintenance would cause a deterioration in the garden. Originally, the importance of cleanliness comes from the characters of Japanese domestic deities and Zen. The nature of cleanliness is rather hard to appreciate, but it is indispensable to the beauty of Japanese gardens in the way that umami, a flavor contained in soup stock, is indispensable to Japanese cuisine.

September 24, 2001
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Entsuji Temple

mePoints of View
(1)The combination of stones and hedges
(2)The combination of hedges, bamboo and the mountain
(3)The combination of the inner and outer parts of the garden

This temple is very famous for Shakkei, or borrowed scenery, a masterful technique of garden design that merges the surrounding natural scenery into the garden itself. Along the veranda, no buildings can be seen, only natural elements. Other gardens of this kind were made in those days, but only this one remains in its original condition. The main element of the scenery as viewed from the building is not the garden itself but the mountain, Mt. Hiei, that stands beyond it. This mountain is noted not only as a mecca of Buddhism (just as Assisi in Italy is one of the meccas of Christianity), but also as a place to be revered. The garden was arranged connecting the outer natural elements with the inner in the middle of the mountains, and all elements are composed in exquisite balance. Now, let’s look at the masterful symphony of the inner and the outer.

Going inside the building and passing through the hallways, visitors can sit on the floor facing the garden to view it. At first sight, the garden looks quite typical. The ground is covered in moss, with stones and round-trimmed shrubs arranged on the bed of moss, positioned low so as not to hinder enjoyment of the outer scenery. Other low hedges are immaculately arranged as a visual border, crisply surrounding the garden on three sides. Around the low shrubs, big Japanese cedar trees grow straight up, breaking the horizontal lines of the shrubs, and are trimmed quite high to enable effective viewing of the natural surroundings. Bamboo groves and the mountain stretch above the shrubs and trees. Moss, stones, shrubs, trees, bamboo groves and mountains are all common natural elements in Kyoto, but here they are seen to the exclusion of everything else.

The bamboo groves and the mountain behind the garden are incorporated into the scenery from the temple, expanding the garden in a subtle manner. As the trees and shrubs at the border are arranged effectively, the external natural elements consisting of bamboo groves and the mountain are nicely linked with those inside, consisting of moss and stones. In the design of this garden, after the location was determined, its spread and the height of the shrubs and veranda seem to have been set to visually incorporate the bamboo groves and the mountain. Looking carefully, the garden appears to be relatively large because the veranda is higher than usual, but in perspective, the spread is in fact neither too small nor too large.

The garden was originally created as part of the villa of Emperor Gomizuno-Tenno. He also built another villa, the Shugakuin Imperial Villa, and had an extraordinary sense of aesthetic as a garden planner. He had been searching for a place with a panoramic vista for a full 12 years. This extreme love for the aesthetic was mainly related to his position as Emperor; the era was the turning point in Japanese politics, when political power shifted from Kyoto to Edo (now known as Tokyo). At that time, the Shogun in Edo passed a law to undermine the power of the Emperor in Kyoto and relentlessly exerted pressure over him to weaken his influence over the religious world. His overcrowded thoughts on how to maintain control of authority brought him to concentrate on searching for a suitable site and creating such a masterful garden.

Looking at the garden for a while, you may hear the noise of shovels working and bulldozers moving outside, invading the tranquility of the area. The zone beyond the bamboo groves is being developed as housing lots, and the construction of buildings is slated to start in the near future. If this construction goes ahead, the perfect composition of natural elements made by the Emperor around 350 years ago will become just a typical Japanese suburban scene.

In the middle of the mountain, elements of S-size (moss and stones), M-size (shrubbery and trees), L-size (bamboo groves) and XL-size (the mountain), have been carefully arranged. Just as the pond at the upper site of the Shugakuin Imperial Villa functions as a big mirror bringing the whole Kyoto sky into the site, the natural frame formed by the hedge and trees in Entsuji Temple brings the mountain inside the garden. In those days, how would Emperor Gomizuno Tenno have felt, viewing the mountain as the mother of Buddhism in Japan?