Walls Within Walls
I had a chance to spend a day in Kyoto with Sadako
last week. After getting off the train, we hopped into a taxi, and I
told the driver, "Take us to Myoshinji ... To the back door ... The
Have you been to Myoshinji? Although the 'ji' in
the name makes it sound just like a 'normal' temple, it's actually
not a single temple at all, but a kind of 'village' of temples and
related buildings, all surrounded by a series of old plastered walls,
with only a few entrances.
I first bumped into it by accident on a trip to
Kyoto quite some years ago, coming across the old weather-beaten
wall, and somewhat apprehensively stepping through a small gate,
found myself in a maze of quiet lanes, with the sound of the city
traffic erased almost instantly. I never forgot the experience, and
have waited for an opportunity to return ever since.
It was to try and recreate for Sadako that
serendipitous discovery that I took her in the 'back door' the other
day, without telling her anything about what we were about to see. It
turned out not to be exactly as I remembered it, as this time was a
busy Sunday, and there were plenty of other tourists around, but once
we were well inside the compound, we found ourselves alone, strolling
hand-in-hand along the pathways, immersed in the peacefulness of the
That first time I had been here, this was about as
far as I had got 'inside' Myoshinji ... walking along those pathways.
But the paths too are mostly bordered by old walls, and I had
wondered as I wandered, about what lay behind them. Here and there, a
limb of an old and gnarled tree stretched out, and some of the gates
and doors stood ajar, allowing glimpses of silent gardens and ancient
buildings. But I had been somewhat intimidated by the aura of the
place, and had not ventured further 'inside'.
This time though, feeling a bit more adventurous,
we crossed the threshold of one of the gates that stood open, and
happened upon yet another level of quiet peacefulness. It turned out
to be a temple that was open to the public, as we found when we
peeked inside the gloomy building. A woman materialized from nowhere,
collected a small fee from us, and then disappeared again.
It seemed that this was something of a famous
place. Had great shoguns slept here? Had young emperors been tutored
here? Perhaps a famous dalliance had taken place here? Such things
didn't really matter to us. We passed quickly through the dark and
very cold building, attracted by the green vision we could see at the
end of the corridor ... bamboo and moss. The garden at the rear of
We stood on the wide polished boards of the
veranda, and stared. Were we really still in the middle of a great
city? It seemed hard to believe, and indeed we entertained no such
thoughts. We had forgotten the outside world. The sunshine splashed
through the bamboo thickets onto the moss that carpeted the ground
everywhere. The swish of a broom sweeping leaves was an accompaniment
to the sound of a waterfall somewhere off in the depths of the
greenery. The sweeper came into view from behind one of the thickets,
and in answer to our request, directed us to some 'zori' sandals at
the foot of the veranda. Yes, we too could step out into that green
I suppose Sadako has seen many such places, and as
she has a fair-sized garden adjoining her own home, for her this
short visit to another world was perhaps nothing particularly
special. But to me, living these past ten years in a concrete 'box'
situated on a noisy main street, one thought filled my mind during
each moment of our stay in that garden, "What it must be like to live
in this sort of space!" Of course, I didn't mean the draughty old
temple itself, but the private, quiet, green space in which it was
situated. "What must it be like?"
I'm not a greedy person ... I'm not unhappy with
the way I am living ... I don't have a long list of things I 'want'.
But please, please, please, when am I going to be able to live in an
environment that is peaceful, green and quiet? By choosing to live in
Tokyo, I've chosen a very expensive place indeed to have such a
dream, and I know that I'll never be able to have a garden like I saw
in Myoshinji, but I'd settle for less ... a lot less ... as long as
it was quiet.
After we had had our fill, we left the garden,
passed back through the temple building back out into the narrow
lane, and then later, out into the noisy city again. The first stop
on our short day-tour of Kyoto was over ... but not forgotten.
Later in the day, it was Sadako's turn to show me
one of her 'Kyoto secrets' - a small shop she knew where we could
rest and warm up with some tasty 'ama-zake'. It was a glorious day,
sharing some of our treasures with each other, and discovering some
new ones together.
Kyoto is very much that sort of place - bland,
noisy and irritating on the outside, but containing any number of
treasures ... all hidden. We'll be back again, Sadako and I, sooner
rather than later. Not in a lifetime of visits could we ever run out
of things to do and see there.
"Taxi! To the back door, please!"