A wander through the hushed gardens of Arashiyama, on Kyoto’s outskirts, recalls a visit to an art gallery. By Gretchen Shirm.

Finding beauty in Kyoto

Koi swim in a pond in the gardens of Tenryū-ji temple.
Koi swim in a pond in the gardens of Tenryū-ji temple.
Credit: Julien Klettenberg

To step out of Kyoto’s train station for the first time is to experience disappointment. “This is it?” tourists think, as they confront an expanse of grey mid-rise. From here Kyoto might be just another Japanese city, with its functional architecture, neon billboards and vertical malls. But Kyoto’s beauty is hidden, invisible from the city itself. The urban sprawl ends at the mountain line, where the temples, shrines and gardens reveal themselves.

It’s autumn and Kyoto’s famed Higashiyama region is impossibly crowded; as much time can be spent negotiating other people as observing the scene. Tourists descend on Kyoto at this time of year and it’s the colour of the leaves that lures them, a palette of reds, oranges and yellows.

We leave crowded Higashiyama behind and head by train to Arashiyama, on Kyoto’s western outskirts. We pick our way through the village, following a path marked by Japanese cake stands, ice-cream stalls and souvenir shops, in search of the historic district’s famed bamboo grove. But the view en route leaves us uncertain: the buildings are mismatched, even run-down. On the awning of one building are three airconditioning units, one evidently still in use, the other two left in successive states of rust and disrepair. Tiny Japanese cube-like cars, with round anime headlights, are parked in impossibly tight spaces.

All of a sudden, without really navigating, we emerge at the gates of Tenryū-ji temple – one of Kyoto’s World Heritage sites. Japanese beauty can be like this – it seems you strike it almost when you’ve given up the search.

At the temple’s entrance we remove our shoes and, in our socks, pad through Tenryū-ji’s halls, connected by covered wooden walkways, whose planks yield underfoot. In the Dharma Hall, the cloud dragon peers down from the ceiling, with a violent intensity to its gaze. In this modern rendering of an original painting, the dragon’s long, scale-covered body snakes through the clouds, winding its way beautifully in and out of darkness and light.

Through the Shoin Drawing Room, I’m struck by something about the simplicity of these rooms: the sliding doors and the straw tatami mats, laid with mathematical precision – their number determines the size of the room. The spaces are modest; they don’t compete with the view outside; instead, each building frames the garden in a different way.

In front of Buddhist statues, some people kneel, or stand and clap their hands twice, heads bowed in silent prayer. In front of each idol are offerings – bowls of apples, lurid pink sweets; at another shrine I saw bottles of whisky and wine.

Sometimes being non-Japanese in Japan is to have the feeling of being invisible, a sensation captured in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation when her protagonist visits Kyoto, wandering through the gardens, without speaking a word. The feeling strikes me often here, the feeling of being separate, confined to an outsider’s glimpse of the world.

On the bus to the station that morning, I had a rare conversation, initiated by the woman who sat beside me. She asked me where I was from. “Sydney,” I replied.

“Very far away,” she commented. She said she was born in Kyoto, married in Kyoto, and raised her children here. “For me,” she said, “only Kyoto.” Somehow, I felt she had entered this conversation with me only to make this point. I asked her to tell me about her favourite place, but couldn’t communicate my message and we sat silently for the rest of the trip in our Japanese and English coded worlds.

In Tenryū-ji’s garden, we walk across the shifting pebbles, taking the path around the pond. The trees are pruned, trained with wire or propped up by struts. The variety of colour gives the garden a spectacular depth of field; as you look across the landscape, each tree becomes a layer of colour, like a 3D paper montage. It’s as though the garden itself is a sculpture, the product of careful design, nurture and thought – it likely is. Closer up, each Japanese maple shows a subtle variation in tone, the leaves closer to the ground are green, while higher up where the sun hits first, they blaze red.

It’s not uncommon at these sites to see groups of women, dressed in yukata, shuffling along in their white socks and wooden thongs. The kimono-like gowns are floral and lightweight, fastened around the waist with an obi sash and bow tied at the back. One young woman walks with her boyfriend, whose yukata has a plainer pattern and a dark blue tone. It’s a strange effect, seeing these groups as though they’ve stepped straight out of a Japanese woodblock print.

I stand for a while by the pond and watch the koi swim silently under the water’s surface. I could watch them for hours, as they meander hypnotically in their whites, yellows and oranges. They coil around and underneath rocks, their bodies long and thin, like lizards yet to grow legs. Their gaping mouths break through the water, reaching up from their slower, quieter, underwater world.

When I walk through Kyoto’s gardens, I get the same feeling that sometimes strikes me when I look at art. It’s a non-verbal beauty: my eye is absorbing something for which language cannot account. Perhaps these gardens are about observing the movement of time – the silent motion of the trees, the changes of colour with each season, and the controlled movement of water.

In front of the main hall, tourists cluster with their cameras mounted on selfie sticks, jostling for the best position to capture an image of themselves that incorporates the view. It’s a strange ritual, I think as I watch them. Individuals, friends, couples, carefully tilt their mounted cameras and rehearse their facial expressions on the screen. It’s shameless, somehow, these photographs intended to be shared with, commented on and “liked” by others. The impulse to document for others seems odd to me, when I feel so drawn inwards by the experience itself.

We escape the frenzy, taking the northern exit into Arashiyama’s bamboo grove and enter the long green hall of bamboo. The stalks are thick and the colour is the living green of a grasshopper or cicada, instantly soothing to the eye. As we move further through the grove, the people around us fall quiet, hushing like the forest itself. The trunks are still and the only movement is the leaves at the top; a quiet rustle descends on the grove as they brush against each other, a constant sound, the noise of a distant sea. As we walk up the hill, a taxi crawls slowly up behind us. It doesn’t use its horn, but the crowd separates noiselessly to allow the car through.

Along the path, a man sits on a small stool painting the landscape. The painting is constructed from strokes, the colour slightly warmer than what surrounds us, as though the true green is too green to seem real when captured in paint. I look back down through the corridor of bamboo and from where I stand even the light appears green.

We wander down the hill, but the bamboo grove ends abruptly. We keep walking and a man pulling a rickshaw jogs past us in shorts, his legs thick and muscular like tree trunks, an older Japanese couple smiling serenely from within, their legs covered with a blanket to keep them from growing too cold.

Tired of walking, we stop at a teahouse to rest our own legs. Our hosts speak only halting English, so the only way to order is by pointing at a photograph and hoping for the best. I select an iced matcha and a green tea jelly sprinkled with sugar. The jelly arrives with a small bamboo skewer to eat with and the taste is delicate, the green tea and the sugar are opposites, confusing the flavours in my mouth.

In the last moments of dying sun, we head back in search of more corners of the bamboo grove: there is something seductive about its giant, cool green stalks.

As the light diminishes, we walk towards the station and I find myself peering down streets and laneways, hoping to catch a glimpse of some other hidden treasure. The beauty we have seen here is restrained and subtle and leaves a certain longing for more. On the train back into Kyoto, moving through the monochrome sprawl, the beauty I have seen that day starts to loom larger. In my memory, it becomes rarefied and distilled, until all I remember is beauty and nothing else along the way.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 27, 2016 as "Garden state".

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Gretchen Shirm is a Sydney author. Her latest novel Where The Light Falls will be published in July 2016.

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