17 Dec 2017 16:23 IST

On the philosopher’s path

A route for pedestrians that leads to moments of reflections in the ancient city of Kyoto

Basho, the 17th-century master of haiku once wrote: “Even in Kyoto — hearing the cuckoo’s cry — I long for Kyoto”. This feeling is familiar to anyone who has visited Kyoto. The city is achingly beautiful and evocative in a way that few other places in the world can claim to be. Little wonder then, that it was the imperial capital of Japan for over a thousand years. Or that it was voted the world’s best city to visit by several international publications.

Kyoto is also a uniquely soothing city that lends itself so easily to contemplation. And for the traveller who has much to ponder over, it also provides the perfect enterprise for such reflection — walking the Philosopher’s Path (Tetsugaku no michi). This beautiful stone path in the Higashiyama district runs alongside a canal lined by cherry trees. The path is named after Nishida Kitaro, the founder of the Kyoto school of philosophy, who is said to have walked this route daily to practice meditation. It is a popular destination for tourists and locals alike during both hanami (flower viewing) and momijigari (autumn foliage viewing) seasons.

The path runs between the Ginkakuji and Nanzenji, two of the most famous Zen temples in Japan. It spans a distance of about two kilometres. There are many temples and shrines to explore along the way as well as cafés, restaurants, and curio shops. While many guidebooks will recommend that you start at Ginkakuji, I found that going up the path from Nanzenji makes for a longer, more introspective walk. By setting off early — I reached Nanzenji just as it opened at 8.30 am — I was also able to avoid crowds. In spring, you can also avoid the crowds by walking the path after sunset when the trees are lit up.

While you might not have time to visit all the temples and shrines on the path, there are four that you should not miss.

The first of these is the majestic Nanzenji temple complex. The headquarters of the Rinzai sect of Japanese Zen Buddhism, the temple is awe-inspiring due to its beauty and size. It is best known for its two-storey sanmon gate constructed in 1628. You can go up to the balcony of the gate to take in views of the verdant hills that surround the temple compound. The hojo (head priest’s quarters) houses one of the most famous rock gardens in Japan as well as priceless screen paintings. Within the compound, there is also an aqueduct built during the Meiji period as well as smaller sub-temples.

A stone’s throw away from Nanzenji is the Eikando temple that is famous for its autumn foliage. Eikando is unique for its Amida Buddha statue which depicts the Enlightened One as looking over his shoulder to the left. Legend has it that on a cold February morning in 1082, Eikan (the mainpriest after whom the temple is known today) and other monks were walking around the temple chanting a prayer when the statue came to life and joined them. When Eikan stopped the prayer in astonishment, the Buddha looked back and said, “Eikan, you are late!” It is believed that the statue has remained in that position ever since. Whether or not you believe its legend, the statue is truly endearing.

Up the path from Eikando is a temple unlike any other in Kyoto — the Honen-in temple. It is deep in the woods and as you approach the long tree-lined walkway up to the moss-covered gate, you half expect to be transported to a different, more magical world. The tranquillity of the woods surrounding it is reflected in every aspect of the temple compound. Walking up to the temple over a stone bridge, it is impossible not to feel a sense of calm and of oneness with the world. The temple’s main hall is only open twice a year: from April 1 to 17 in spring and from November 1 to 7 in autumn. It is worthwhile to plan a trip during this time to see the Buddha figure in the main hall.

The path concludes at the Ginkakuji temple and its sprawling and painstakingly preserved sand gardens. The main hall is out of bounds, but you can walk around the grounds. You can also follow the garden trail to a higher vantage point that offers expansive vistas of Kyoto.

If you are still hungry after all the food for thought offered up by retracing the philosopher’s footsteps, conclude your excursion at Omen. It is a cosy restaurant next to Ginkakuji that serves udon noodles in hot/cold broth that will nourish your body just as the Philosopher’s Path will have nourished your soul.

(Amrita V Nair is a researcher and freelance writer based in Singapore. The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine's BLInk.)

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