Ginkaku-ji and the Philosopher’s Path

So, this post is actually about a trip that I took a while back—during my very first weekend in Kyoto, in fact. The CLS/KCJS folks arranged a trip along the Philosopher’s Path ( 哲学の道, or Tetsugaku no Michi). This is a famous walkway that follows a small canal—it starts at Ginkaku-ji and ends roughly at Nanzen-ji, with a number of other temples and shrines (such as Hōnen-in and Eikan-dō) along the way. The route gets its name from the influential 20th century Japanese philosopher and Kyoto University professor Nishida Kitaro, who is thought to have used it for daily meditation. (I actually read Nishida’s An Inquiry Into the Good for a class last year—very interesting stuff, though probably somewhat beyond my ability to comprehend. His work is strongly influenced by Zen Buddhism, and much of the book talks about the importance of direct experience.) Anyway, the path itself is quite pleasant—you can imagine how pretty it is in the spring, when all of the (currently green) cherry trees are in full bloom:

We started the day at Ginkaku-ji, which made me fantastically happy because the last time I went to Ginkaku-ji, it was under construction and the entire main building was obscured by construction equipment (very sad!). And actually, that was a 2-year-long project to restore the main building, so it only just finished in March 2010. Anyway, as you can see from the pictures above and below, Ginkaku-ji was in fine form this time around:

Ginkaku-ji is one of the most famous temples in Kyoto—it is also known as the “Silver Pavilion,” in contrast to Kinkaku-ji, which is the “Golden Pavilion.” And the two look very much alike, because Ginkaku-ji was modeled on Kinkaku-ji. But while Kinkaku-ji is actually covered in gold, Ginkaku-ji is obviously not. The story is that Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa, who had the building constructed with as a villa in the 1480s, was unable to have the building covered in silver before his death. After he died, the villa was converted to a Zen temple and the silver was never added. The main building’s present appearance is understood to be the same as when Yoshimasa himself last saw it. Its “unfinished” nature is said to illustrate one of the aspects of “wabi-sabi.” You always find people who like Ginkaku-ji better for this reason—they seem to find Kinkaku-ji too garish. I probably personally prefer Kinkaku-ji. But both are worth seeing!

Like many of Kyoto’s best temples, Ginkaku-ji is set in the hills and has a great view of Kyoto from the top:

In the picture above and in the picture at the very top of this post, you can see one of the Zen gardens, which include meticulously raked formations of white sand. Very Japanese. Very Ginkaku-ji.

After Ginkaku-ji, we made a quick stop at Honen-ji, a small temple founded in 1600 to honor Honen, the founder of the Jodo school. It is set in a lovely secluded spot and also features some nice landscaping. The day we visited happened to be the date of the founder’s death, which was particularly interesting, since important people and maiko (geisha in training) make trips to Honen-ji every year on this day.

After Honen-ji, we stopped into Eikan-do, a temple which was founded in 855 (though its name was only changed to Eikan-do in the 11th century). It is particularly well-known for its fall foliage, though of course, we didn’t get to see any of it. At any rate, the architecture in this temple was great. I loved the big gigantic wooden doors in this picture:

I also loved the series of wood passageways and stairways at Eikan-do—very striking:

Finally, we wound our way over to Nanzen-ji, though I have to admit that we were pretty tired by that point and really didn’t do it justice. Nanzen-ji is one of the most important Zen temples in Japan. It is the head temple of one of the schools within the Rinzai sect of Japanese Zen Buddhism and includes multiple subtemples that make the already large complex of temple buildings even larger. Nanzen-ji dates back to the mid 13th century, when Emperor Kameyama built his retirement villa at the temple’s present location and later converted it into a Zen temple. Unfortunately, its buildings were all destroyed during the civil wars of the late Muromachi Period (1333-1573). The oldest of the current buildings were built after that period. We only got around to seeing the main building and a few other things. My favorite part was probably the large brick aqueduct that passes through the temple grounds (pictured below). Built during the Meiji Period (1868-1912), the aqueduct is part of a canal system that was constructed to carry water and goods between Kyoto and Lake Biwa in the neighboring Shiga Prefecture.

Anyway, it was yet another jam-packed day of sightseeing in the world of CLS Japan. At this point, we only have about a week of classes left, then about a week of traveling. Time really does fly when you’re having fun (and when you have so much homework that you pretty much only sleep, eat and study). I have a bunch of posts that I’m hoping to get through before I leave Kyoto, so keep checking back!

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