Originally published in The Hindu on May 31, 2017

Cherry blossoms, Zen rock gardens and perhaps the most beautiful street in Asia... Kyoto in spring is as ethereal as a painting

I reeled into the cherry blossom-fringed entrance of the Zen temple, Tenryuji, just one more of Kyoto’s endless UNESCO World Heritage sites, inebriated on beauty. Kyoto in full sakura-bloom is a sight to make the most confirmed teetotaller drunk, and I’m partial to a cup of sake at the best of times. There, under the cover of the floral parasol of a cherry blossom, rested a heron, its grey-and-white silhouette easily mistaken for an ink wash painting. The realism in the Japanese aesthetic was increasingly apparent. In the right season, Kyoto actually looks like an ethereal image on a 19th-Century folding screen.

Amongst the most intriguing of Kyoto’s treasures are the city’s Zen rock gardens, or karesansui (literally, dry-mountain-water). Powerful and abstract, these typically consist of rocks and carefully-raked white sand. Over the centuries, it has become customary for tourists to dwell on their own interpretation of the tranquil arrangements of these dry gardens. Some discern representations of a tigress escorting her cubs across water, others find the Chinese character for heart, or the restful outline of a branching tree.

Temple run

At the Tofukuji, another of the city’s great Zen temples, I took a moment, having dispatched my decidedly un-Zen offspring to a far corner, to contemplate the 1938 karesansui designed by legendary landscaper Mirei Shigemori. Dominated by a massive rock cluster that thrusts abruptly forth in lateral and vertical directions, the garden’s linear sand lines were interrupted by circular ripples, like the surface of a lake broken by a skimming stone. It would have been hypnotic, but for the progeny returning with loud demands for matcha ice cream.

Japan has the best flavours for ice cream. Other than green tea, there are sweet potato, sesame, and adzuki bean: all with far more depth and subtlety of flavour than vanilla varieties of well, vanilla and chocolate. My current favourite is the very seasonal ‘sakura’, a pink cone of fragrance with actual cherry blossom petals mixed in. I agreed to a treat for the kids, but first I wanted to visit the toilet, not to use it myself, but to take some photographs.

The toilet at Tofukuji is a national treasure. Designated an “important cultural property” since 1902, the 14th-Century tousu,as restrooms in Zen temples are called, is the oldest and largest of all extant Zen outhouses. I gazed at the row of holes in the bare earthen floor of the airy, sloping-roofed structure. Outside, a sign explained how human excrement was used for compost manure, and was thus indispensable for keeping up an adequate supply of Kyoto vegetables to the kitchens of samurai warriors and court nobles. Compost manure used to be a large part of any Zen temple’s income. The next day, a driving spring rain had us heading for the 12th-Century Sanjusangendo temple, with its long, covered hall lined with rows of 1001 dully glinting statues of kannon, the popular bodhisattva of mercy. The cumulative presence of these enormous statues had a spiritual heft that was accentuated by the 28 guardian deities snarling gargoyle-like before them. Japanese Buddhism’s Indian roots were on clear display, for Hindu gods were adopted into the Buddhist pantheon as guardian deities. The 28 in Sanjusangendo included Raijin or Varuna, Naraen Kengo (Narayana) or Vishnu, Karakura or Garuda, Makeishura or Shiva, Taishaku or Indra, Daiben Kudoku-ten or Lakshmi and even Daibon-ten, originally Brahma.

By late afternoon, the rain had ceased, and we headed for what is often described as the most beautiful street in Asia: Shimbashi. A willow-and-blossom threaded canal runs along one end, with tea houses, art galleries and antiquarians connected to the street by the half moon of a stone bridge. Shimbashi is in Gion, the city’s traditional pleasure district. It is the playground of the elusive Geisha, as well as the tourists desperate to catch a glimpse of them.

As dusk gathers and the yellow street lamps start coming on, I spot the white-faced, slightly-bowed figure of a Geisha hurrying by. But the swish of a richly-decorated kimono later, she has disappeared, leaving only the flutter of a restaurant entrance’s curtain in her wake. There is a large rock by the side of the canal with an early 20th-Century poem by Isamu Yoshii inscribed on it. No matter what happens / I am in love with Gion. / Even when I sleep, / Beneath my pillow / The waters ripple.

But for me it is haiku master Basho’s poem that has a lingering effect:

Even in Kyoto — hearing the cuckoo’s cry — I long for Kyoto.