We are heading back to Japan for a two week holiday in a couple of days. I’m almost insanely excited. Far too excited for a woman my age! This will be our fourth trip to Japan. We are having another week in Kyoto, as we still feel we haven’t explored the area fully. There are lots of places in Kyoto and nearby that we haven’t visited yet, so hopefully we will chalk a few off the list this time. Top priority is Chion-in, as each of the previous three times we have tried to visit, it has either been closed for refurbishment, or we have missed the last admission, or we went on the wrong day. It’s the headquarters of the Pure Land Sect of Buddhism and one of the biggest temple complexes I’ve seen (from the outside) – how could we have had such bad luck??!
But as well as places we haven’t visited before, we also want to revisit a couple. One of the places I’d like to see again is Entoku-in in Gion.
We found out about Entoku-in by reading Judith Clancy‘s book “Exploring Kyoto: On Foot in the Ancient Capital“. A rainy day in October made us change our plans to go to Fushimi Inari and we headed for Higashiyama and the Gion district instead. We started out at Maruyama Park and had our usual look around Yasaka Shrine and a green tea ice cream, then popped up the hill to Otani Sobyo for a look around the gardens. We were sort of following the Higashiyama walking route in Judith Clancy’s book, but not committing to everything she suggests! We did follow the path across to the cottage built as a memorial to the poet Basho, and nearly missed it, so small and unassuming it is.
We almost didn’t go to Entoku-in. One of the most confusing things about Kyoto for me as a Westerner is the number of vehicles that travel along seemingly pedestrianised streets. The street that Entoku-in stands on is one such street. As we turned the corner from the Bashodo, it felt like every other step we took was interrupted by a taxi or limousine wanting to pass us. We were on the side of the street that the steps up to Kodaiji lead from and almost took that option, but then I stopped to read the guidebook and discovered that Entoku-in has a moss and rock garden that Judith Clancy describes as luxurious. I was intrigued, so we stepped across the road and entered through the roofed wooden gate and samurai house, built to defend the temple from attack. Here we paid our entry fee and were given a beautiful brochure in Japanese depicting the treasures we were about to encounter.
The approach to the buildings is through one section of the gardens, which were designed by Kobori Enshu in the 17th century. He also designed gardens for the Sento Imperial Palace and Katsura Imperial Villa, as well as gardens in Nijo Castle and Osaka Castle. Entoku-in was founded as a temple by the nephew of the wife of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Hideyoshi is one of my husband’s favourite characters from the samurai era. Inside the priest’s quarters are some stunning painted screens by Hasegawa Tohaku, the founder of the Hasegawa school of painting. Unfortunately, visitors are not permitted to photograph the screens, which are designated as Important Cultural Properties, but they are truly amazing to look at. The colours are jewel bright, and you can see that the style was an influence on the Western Art Deco movement in art and design. There is also a painted screen by Akamatu Ryo, of a large white dragon among waves, which represents Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
When we entered the building, we left our shoes at the door and walked in our stockinged feet through different rooms, guided occasionally by women, one of whom warned us to mind our heads in one particularly low-ceilinged part. We nodded and thanked her, and then my husband promptly stood up from his bow and banged his head on a door lintel. Bless that polite Japanese woman, I could tell that she wanted to laugh, but instead she showed appropriate concern for his well being!
Leaving the first building, we crossed a small bridge that looked down onto a street and entered a second building. At this side of the temple is a meditation hall that looks out over a rock and moss garden. The hall opens out into a spacious veranda where you can sit and contemplate the garden, which is made in the Momoyama style and has been registered as a National Place of Scenic Beauty. It is incredible to think that this calm, peaceful place was first created in 1605.
Even the out building alongside the veranda (where I can only assume the priest carries out his ablutions) was tranquil!
After sitting and gazing at the beauty of the garden for quite a while, we reluctantly dragged our gaze away and went back into the meditation hall. Here one of the guides introduced us to the portraits of Hideyoshi and his wife Nene. Her meaning was conveyed through a mixture of gesture and me recognising some familiar words in Japanese. I’m not convinced that I fully understood what she was trying to tell us. I was left wondering whether one of the portraits was of the nephew, and not of Hideyoshi at all!
We had read in the small English guide leaflet that visitors could take part in Tea Ceremony, but we couldn’t work out how to do it. I wish I had read the information in the first link for Entoku-in in this post, because then I would have known that all we needed to do was ring the bell at the small table we saw. But we had the feeling that we had missed our chance, and didn’t know how to ask in Japanese, so instead we collected our shoes (which had magically been brought around from the other part of the temple) and headed off towards Ninenzaka to look for the shop that sells Ghibli merchandise.
I’d be interested to go back in the spring, to see how the garden looks in blossom time. I’d also like to find out whether my Japanese has improved to an extent that I might understand more of what the guides tell us. I suspect not!