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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 north gate!"

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 place.

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 the temple.

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 oasis.

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!"