30.06.2009, Kyoto 9th day


The bustle and liveliness of the conference is now over and I am back to enjoying Japan. Just a few more days left. Today I did two excursions. One very long one this morning to the Daigo-Ji which is far to the south east of Kyoto. Having got there by underground I then walked the 10 or so kilometers back to the city centre which was an interesting and rather humid affair. Kyoto has two aspects. When you look down at the groundscape you invariably see spotless floors and carefully detailed pavements and roads. When you look up you see and extraordinary wirescape of electricity wires and pylons. The buildings themselves are mostly indifferent, it has to be said. So you are left with a very confusing picture: a sort of well cared for, and yet completely chaotic third world city which appears rich. I am not sure whether that is completely fair. But it will have to do for now….

The Daigo-Ji however, is beautiful and vast. The temples reach all the way up the mountain, which today was veiled with whisps of low hanging clouds. The complex boasts the oldest wooden structure in Japan, a lovely 5 storey pagoda. Now, pagoda’s are all very well, but what really took my breath away was Omote Shoin of the Sanboin complex within the temple grounds, and its garden. It was originally built by and for the so-called archbishops of the Buddhist sect. Having said that, apart from the exquisite sophistication and refined beauty of the spaces of the rooms and their relation to a fabulous garden, there is nothing new to mention here that I have not covered earlier in relation to other temples and sights (see earlier days below). That most probaly is all down to my own limitations. The difference I would only be able to express in pictures. But I was not allowed to take photographs and that was a good thing. It meant I could just enjoy the place, without having to worry about framing views. What was rather beautifully illustrated here, was the way the rooms of the shoin are subtly differentiated in height relative to each other and distance from the entrance, which not only orients them with regard to quotidian use, social gatherings and their placing in relation to the garden, but also differentiates them socially. The height itself is insignificant, never more that 15 cm or so, but the effect is socially vast. You either belong, or you do not, its that simple, wher you get to matters. Their relative emptiness as rooms, filled only with their tatami mats, full and giving to the feet as you walk over them and the exquisitely painted screens, (although they are rarely my thing it has to be said) make them strange spaces: simultaneously undetermined in the sense that you could theoretically do anything in them, ( the middle room of the Omote shoin sometimes doubles as a stage for No productions) and at the same time they breathe srict hierarchy and stringent protocol.

That was better illustrated by the second excursion of the day, rather nearer to my hotel thankfully, which was to the great castle of Kyoto, the Nijo-jo, set within moats and cyclopean walls of huge stones arranged in waves so that if an earthquake hits, they are shaken but not stirred. Any earthquake merely makes the walls stronger as the stones, arranged as they are, are merely further compacted by any movement on their part. Very clever. The Shogun’s Palace, the Ninomaru, is gigantic. I had never really understood this before, having only ever had the chance to study both it and the Katsura palace in photogrpahs. It is almost impossible to see from photographs what the difference is in size between them.. Simply put, scale is the first difference, sheer size. The Ninomaru Palace, although arranged in a similar way to the Katsura, with several pavilions connected in a zigzag pattern to make good use of the building’s relationship with the garden, is much, much bigger and as a result much more massive when you see yourself and others in relation to it. Huge columns, enormous roof structures and a lot of gold and stuff. At the same time it is hugely less impressive than the meditative detailing of the Katsura. It is dark, spoilt by the logistical requirements of mass tourism and in any case the paintings lack subtlety. There is altogether too much emphasis on the exercise of power one feels. Mind you, that bit is understandable, after all it was an official palace for the Shogun, who was not the emperor, but the man running the show by giving the emperor more of a representative role, so I suppose all that show is to be expected, even in Japan. In one of the rooms they have life size models dressed, arranged and postured the way a group of feudal lords would have sat when meeting the shogun and his ministers. Everyone had their proper place and permitted movements. Wonderful to see really. The shogun sat centrally, raised above the others on his own platform not 15 cm higher than the platform where the ministers sat at right angles to the Shogun, and they, in turn, not 15 cm higher than the platform where the feudal lords were kneeling in rows facing the shogun. What makes it all doubly exciting is that the shogun had a specially trained troop of armed guards hidden in the cupboard behind him as he received people. At the same time the palace corridors and galleries were equipped with "nightingale floorboards" which “sing” a little birdlike squeak as you walk over them. That is a lot of fun to experience. This was done by mounting a little squeaky widget under the floorboards so that the wood would rub against it with the weight of a body pressing down on the whole contraption. This was done so that people knew there were people coming. That is what you need when you have do not have thick walls and lockable doors! People need both privacy and security, in whatever way they can get it. In europe we build thick walls and lock doors, here they make sure people can be heard a mile off.


Daigo-Ji, door
two shoji's with a gap shoing stuff behind them
The Sanboim complex
I love Japanese garden walls
Great space
This is one of the more poetic images of the day. It was a rather delapidted house. It used to be a restaurant I think. Anyway its wondows became picture windows, but not looking out. But looking in. So when you look into the house you see beaches and wonderfulness
Ninomaru palace
Walls of the Nijo-jo
On the station platform off to Nara, but this picture was really taken on day 10