Zen and the art of happiness

Of course one of the aims of travel is to make you happy. But there is the fleeting oh-this-is-fun happy and then there is a deeper, Zen-happy. In Kyoto, the cultural heart of Japan, you can appreciate both. This, explains deputy head priest Taka Kawakami, is because so many acts in everyday life here are wreathed in a meditative gesture of appreciation and delight in sharing.

“It’s a constant, not something you leap into now and again like a bungee jump,” says Taka with typical dry humour as he leads his daily philosophy and meditation sessions (with a bit of science thrown in as well) at the Shunkoin Temple. To demonstrate, he serves cups of green tea with the pattern facing the recipients. We respond by turning that cup to share the pattern with everyone else. In the temple’s exquisite Japanese garden designed, as most are, to be enjoyed from inside, he points out the lines raked in the pebbles. The idea, he says, is to enjoy the act of making a perfect line while knowing that the moment the achievement is complete it is in the past and should it rain, it will be gone forever.


Tomitsuyu, a  young maiko


At the Women’s Association of Kyoto (WAK), I experience more of the same.

WAK was set up by Michi Ogawa when, after her fourth child started school, she was unable to get a job due to age and lack of experience. University-educated, she responded by buying a book on opening a business, then proceeded to do exactly that. She now employs more than 50 educated, middle-aged women who teach tourists anything from origami and Japanese flower arranging to calligraphy and cookery, each lesson coming complete with history and cultural exchange. High-end experiences are also available including choosing a favourite kimono, posing for photographs and then having it transformed into a western-style evening dress you can wear back home.

In a typical Machya house – long and thin with slatted windows in the front so you can see out but passers-by can’t see in – my gentle teacher explained we would cook healthy food from local ingredients with little waste.

After a meditative half hour or so I had produced, from scratch, a simple meal including rice with ginger and sesame seeds, deep fried tofu with teriyaki sauce, miso soup, egg roll with dashi stock and spinach in a sesame dressing. Even artful display is taught and we ate our meal beginning with the traditional grace, itadakimasu, meaning I will have the food respectfully. This is an expression of gratitude to everyone responsible for bringing the food to the table, after which I promise to never eat mindlessly in front of the television again.

Kyoto people have a reputation for extreme politeness. There is a joke that “will you be staying for tea?” is Kyoto-speak for “when are you leaving?” They take pride in making guests feel welcome and comfortable and nothing typifies that more than a geisha. Here, in Kyoto, where the tradition began, they are known as geikos and the trainees as maikos. It’s hard to explain why spending an afternoon or evening with a woman with big hair, a 10-kilogram kimono and make-up that takes an hour to apply should be akin to spending time with the most entertaining, thoughtful dinner party host ever, but it is.


Origami lesson


It used to be that few people outside Japan could easily obtain an introduction to a tea house, and therefore a geiko, but today most hotels and ryokans can arrange them. We spent an afternoon with the charming first-year maiko Tomitsuyu, a particular treat as she speaks perfect English having been educated for four years in New Zealand. Like her big sisters, Tomitsuyu serves tea, dances, plays music and also introduces us to a great fun singing and drinking game which I was glad to lose; not because I wanted to scull sake but was concerned at being the cause of a 17-year-old sculling it.

There are lots of phrases that are uniquely Japanese. Google wabi sabi for instance and you’ll probably pull up a photograph of Kyoto’s famous Ryoan-ji Temple rock garden – 15 rocks placed on white gravel in such a way that it’s impossible to see them all at once. It’s a short phrase to explain a complicated number of concepts: liberation from a materialistic world, the way quirks and anomalies can add uniqueness, and that most zen of reminders: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, nothing is perfect.  It’s a good place to meditate, unlike the crowded Golden Pavilion nearby. Recently re-guilded, it makes a lovely photo but my Japanese guide declared it “too glittery”. He liked it better when it was a bit tarnished (and more wabi sabi), he told me.

It’s a lovely spot, though. The Japanese like to live in harmony with nature and another favourite phrase is shakkei, borrowed landscape. They’d never dream of building something without considering the surrounds and many gardens and temples are designed to encourage you to look at the natural landscape surrounding them, rather than at the manmade elements. Life revolves around the seasons. February is plum blossom time followed by everyone’s favourite season, cherry blossom. Kyoto people love that so much, they all party under the trees.

Kyoto is laid out in a simple grid system with a river running through it so it’s easy to find your way around – even if you have directional disability as I do. If you want a really good insight into the city, head to the Kyoto Cycling Tour Project. Cycling is easy here; the roads are completely flat so it’s a great way to get around and my guide Keiko Sumida proved a mine of information, beginning with the picturesque narrow back streets of Gion, Kyoto’s old town, and pointing out the wan-looking maikos hurrying to school without their make-up. We pedalled to the Imperial Palace and its gorgeous parks, past shrines, temples and even the famous bridge featured in the film Memoirs of a Geisha.


Streets of Gion


Cycling enables you to see more of less so it’s the little details you get to appreciate – the sign outside a Gion tea house that indicates 11 maikos live there, all presumably squashed up side-by-side on their futons. I learned too how shrines and parks appeared when the Imperial Palace moved to Tokyo in 1868 and Kyoto had to rebuild pride and employment opportunities. It also provides an opportunity to appreciate how successfully Kyoto has combined ancient and modern. Shogun’s Nijojo Castle, with its squeaky floors to foil would-be assassins, is just up the road from the Manga Museum.

After a cycle, you’ve earned lunch and food is so important to the Japanese it is one of the few countries whose traditional diet is included in UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. At the luxurious and brilliantly situated Gion Hatanaka ryokan, we were served a stunning Japanese degustation. The Japanese enjoy “a little bit of everything” and this is a great opportunity to sample just about every dish this region produces. Also fun is the Japanese version of fondue, only with meat, fish, vegetables and, finally, noodles, cooked in a pot of boiling broth. The other must-do food experience is Nishiki Food Market. Go with a local if you can. A few stalls have English translations but otherwise, it’s a question of guess that fish/vegetable/snack. You can also buy good cooking implements, especially knives.

Funnily enough, however, the comestible Kyoto is most famous for is its very pure water – which also results in particularly good tofu and sake. There are public drinking springs everywhere and one of the most visited attractions is Kiyomizu-dera (Clear Water) temple, built at the foot of the Mount Otowa mountains 1,200 years ago at the site of a spring that has never stopped flowing. It is one of the most visited temples in Japan. This is partly because even the approach is lovely – through the Higashiyama District with its sweet souvenir shops – and partly because various activities there are thought to bestow longevity, luck in relationships and even easy childbirth.

We stepped into a pitch-black basement said to represent the Buddha’s womb, emerging to the light, apparently to start life anew. We stood on a balcony to look down at the Buddha’s footprints. The Buddha does not have to take any form, our guiding monk Mr. Eigen Onishi told us. Your personal Buddhas can be found in the smile of a child or the peace of a garden.

To my surprise, I found myself tearing up as he invited us to watch lotus petals flutter to the ground and meditate on our own personal Buddhas. It’s good to be reminded how much we have to be happy about. There’s no better souvenir to take home.

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