I have just recently returned from a trip to Japan. My 3rd visit in 5 years. The first time was a delightful surprise as I was announced the winner of a prize draw from Tozando, a well known supplier of martial arts equipment based in Kyoto. Whilst a short trip, only 6 days, it was incredibly exciting as going to Japan had been a long held dream of mine and one which for various reasons I had not been able to fulfil. Coming as a prize in a lottery draw was not how I expected to make my way here but here I was, finally making my way to Kyoto, Japan.
It would not be until the following day that I would get to see this beautiful city and its formidable history as my arrival was late into the evening. The host, the staff of Tozando who received me in down town Kyoto, took care of most things from travel passes, temple visits and places to eat. It helped get a quicker feel for the city than I would have on my own. I got to see much more this way. While it was not an Aikido or Iaido or martial arts trip as such and had been my intentions in the past, it was still very much due to my involvement in martial arts as Tozando was my supplier of equipment.
The city is blessed with tradition, temples, shrines and over flowing with arts and crafts of every description. Shrines are everywhere. You can take a different turn or direction to just about any destination and you will stumble onto one or more. Small and understated, large and domineering but all meticulously maintained. Their presence adds to the ambience of this ancient city. I believe the maintenance of these shrines, the effort it takes to look after them, is an indication of the considerable value held by Kyoto citizens. It contributes to the ambience and is a part of it its allure. The Kyoto citizens have a connection with their city that is without doubt part civic pride and part spiritual. This becomes even more noticeable when you consider the larger temples reminding you of the countries predominantly Buddhist and Shinto inheritance.
I had visited Ginkakuji, the Silver temple and the impressive Kiyomizudera. They held a particular relevance as I got to see the source of Zen Buddhism in Japan, the study of which played a significant role in my training in Aikido. I had exposure to both the Soto and Rinzai sect of these practices. The gardens, which are synonymous with Zen, were exquisite whilst orderly. There was purpose in their creation and yet natural, not merely replications of nature but certainly honouring it. As I passed through the Ginkakuji temple grounds I would be amazed at the Autumn colours, the warmth of reds, oranges, greens and yellows. It was almost contrived, a Japanese Disney Land for foreigners to wonder at. It was of course nothing of the sort but the living tradition of these temples. For all my past involvement in Zen and the inspiration around me, I felt no desire to be a part of it again. It played its part many years ago and the spirit of it still permeates in my Aikido and in some ways in my life. It is a connection to ones own nature and here nature is everywhere. You can never be too far from it. The mountains and rivers, the woods and even a hot spring in the vicinity.
In the following few days I would squeeze in Nijo castle in the centre of Kyoto. The squeaky floor boards apparently are an intentional feature designed to warn the occupants of intruders. Ninja to be exact. Then Nishiki market was due a visit, an incredible place where I would buy a pair of Japanese hand made kitchen knives. The skill of Japanese sword smiths is well known and today these skills are applied to the manufacture of these knives. The bulk of the people buying in the local specialist store were tourists. The Gion neighbourhood would be my last day out as I got to enjoy the Geisha district and the surrounding areas. The area has an incredible energy, a vibe that makes you want to hang around. That and the aesthetics of this part of the city makes it so attractive to visit.
I have left my love of Japanese food last. I barely got started exploring the extent of the cuisine on this trip. The diversity and quality available is never ending. I can write about the usual sushi and sashimi, tempura and ramen dishes. It was however once more the Tozando team, treating me to a multi course dinner where Kyoto’s local tofu dishes were a speciality amongst the food served.