Lynn and I walked slowly around the massive park that was home to Yasaka Jinga, Chion-in, and Shoren-in temples—or shrines. As I wrote previously, the distinction was never clear to me, and Kyoto is blurred together.
A common theme was stone steps.
As we entered one of the compounds, we caught sight of something humping back and forth in a tiny glass cage. We both recoiled in shock, then approached it slowly.
“Oh, thank god … It’s mechanical,” Lynn said.
“I thought it was a crippled child!” I said, relieved. I can say “crippled,” which is politically incorrect now, because I spent much of my youth at Shriner’s Hospital for Crippled Children. They changed the name to something less pointed years ago.
“I thought it was a very small disabled person,” said Lynn.
I believe visitors were were meant to make an offering, then stick their hands into the tiny window to touch the bodhisattva for good luck.
We walked beyond each shrine and climbed steps as far as we would go. We were the only visitors to a cemetery where Princess Sen was buried. This was something we gleaned from a map or guidebook, but there was nothing to mark where she was interred or who she was. The views were worth the climb. It was silent except for an occasional bird call.
The serenity was thanks to these and other hand-tools.
Later, in a garden, we sat on a bench and observed a gardener at work. You may just be able to make out his silhouette in the center below. He worked on his knees, wearing long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, gloves, and a traditional straw hat. Using a hand-trowel, he knelt forward and dug away at something.
Then he sat back on his knees and stayed that way, looking down at his work, before working away again.
Getting things done fast was clearly not a priority. We didn’t see any other gardeners. How he did he keep it all up—was this such an old, established garden that it didn’t require much maintenance? That seemed unlikely. There were ponds and bridges, moss lawns and trees, and meticulously-raked sand.
“I saw those prehistoric trees in the outback, in Australia,” I commented. “They’re low maintenance for sure.”
“Maybe there isn’t much to do now because it’s the rainy season,” Lynn said. That seemed like a possibility.
At the bottom of a set of stairs we admired this goddess.
“She looks like a Buddhist version of the BVM,” I said.
“Yes,” Lynn replied. The Virgin Mary with wings. She’s lovely.”
As we exited a garden, we were greeted by stone welcoming committees.
“Is it a cemetery?” Lynn wondered. There were no signs.
“Or a garden store?” I guessed. “You know, like in the US or the UK where you can buy gnomes and fake deer?”
“I like the cheery chap with the kumquat on his lap,” Lynn said.
We found a tea house on the grounds and were led into a private room with sliding screened walls. Everything was tranquil simplicity itself, including the placemats.
Based on the photo menu, I ordered the eggplant dish I’d enjoyed the day before. Untranscribable noises of appreciation issued involuntarily from me as I ate. “Mmm…I have to ask Taro what this topping is,” I managed to articulate. He had offered to answer any questions that came up after our class, whether about culture or cooking.
It turns out this was a sauce called miso dengaku, which is made with sake, sugar, miso, and a sweet wine called mirin. It is used to top off eggplant, daikon, tofu, or whatever else your imagination dreams up. I’ve tried making it twice since returning from Japan, with mixed success.
Japan is a land of contrasts. Later that evening we dined in a dive that featured horse meat sashimi, innards stew, and deep-fried chicken cartilage. Some of the customers were smoking inside, something I experienced here and there throughout the month.
On the plus side, the place had great vintage beer posters.
We ate nuts and talked about international development.
How do you categorize a wealthy country that eats horses, we wondered?