Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Of Bishops and Buddhists -- our uncommon Christmas Day in Kyoto

Christmas Day in Kyoto is definitely unlike Christmas day in the Philippines.  
It is a regular working day so people really go about their daily business.  
While the trappings of Christmas may be present -- lights, Christmas trees, Santa Claus and gifts -- 
however,  that's all there is to it.  For majority of the Japanese, it is a commercial and not a religious event.

Since this was our second Christmas Day in Kyoto we knew enough as to where we could properly celebrate the occasion. Just as we did last year, we hied off to busy, commercial Kawaramachidori where the Cathedral of Saint Francis Xavier is located.  The Cathedral is built along simple, modern lines with beautiful stained glass windows.  The presence of a small belen or creche at the foot of the altar made me feel a little less homesick.

Good friend and Kyoto resident Meiko san attended mass with us, as she did last year.  As the mass was said in Japanese, she translated portions of the Bishop's homily during the mass, all in a quiet whisper of course.

The first time we heard Christmas mass at the Cathedral, Bishop Paul Otsuka of the Diocese of Kyoto was the main celebrant.  This year,  he celebrated mass again and afterwards mingled with the parishioners.  He was very amiable and glad to meet visitors like us -- Jay had the nerve (I was too shy) to ask the Bishop to pose for a souvenir photo.

From mass, we headed to Ginkakuji,  a Zen Temple in the eastern hills of Higashiyama.  This is a Buddhist temple that is also a UNESCO World Heritage site and is famous for one of its buildings, the Silver Pavilion.

This was the week before New Year so preparations were well underway to spruce up the temple grounds.  It was quite fascinating to watch these men fixing the volcano shaped cone or the "moon viewing platform" from where it is said the shogun used to sit and watch the full moon.
This sand cone is set in the middle of the dry sand garden known as the "Silver Sea of Sand".
Zen temples are famous for their beautiful dry rock or sand gardens and Ginkakuji has quite a splendid one.

I much prefer  The Silver Pavilion or Ginkakuji over its counterpart, the Golden Pavilion or Kinkakuji.  I love the subdued and quiet elegance of the former over the flashy showiness of the latter. Ginkakuji is wabi sabi to its core.

It was drizzling intermittently but this didn't stop us from taking a walk through the Philosopher's Path.   Cold winter weather notwithstanding,  Martina still had an appetite for an ice cream cone.

Meiko san had a Christmas treat for us -- she brought us to a temple a short walk away.
This is the entrance to Honen-in, built by the Buddhist priest Honen who also established
the Jodo-shu sect of Buddhism in the 12th century.   Wide and easy stone steps make for a comfortable and pleasing approach to the Somon or the first gate to the temple.

Honen-in is a bit off the tourist beaten track.  The afternoon we visited, we were the only ones there.  For me, this seclusion added much to its appeal.  A stone path leads to the second gate, the Sanmon.
A burst of yellow leaves, remnants of what must have been spectacular autumn foliage is the only "distraction" to this serene setting.

To the left of the thatched roof Sanmon Gate is this old stone marker.  Meiko san said it states that no alcohol, meat or garlic are allowed inside the temple grounds.  I felt a bit guilty for being a  
beer-guzzling,  non- vegetarian visitor.

These two rectangular mounds of sand are what you first see when you step through the 
Sanmon Gate.  These symbolise water and as you pass through them, you are purified, both in body and mind.  There are patterns on top of the sand mounds which are changed according to the season. 

The Hondo or Main Hall was closed and is open to the public only a few times a year, during the spring and autumn seasons.

 I found it hard to tear myself away from the tranquility of Honen-in.  Its calm and quiet air seemed ideal for contemplation and meditation.  While there was not much to see in terms of grand buildings or structures,  experiencing the stillness of the place brought a feeling of peace to my soul.

From Honen-in we walked the back streets of the Philosopher's Path.   Meiko san said this was a very premier residential area of Kyoto.  

Back on the Philosopher's Path we came upon this community of cats.   While I have walked through this way before,  I had never noticed any cats although Meiko san said this was a "highlight" of this stretch of the walk. While these may be stray cats, they seemed to well taken cared of by the residents -- as evidenced by this tabby all wrapped up in a blanket to ward off the December chill.  

There are quite of number of these Kyoto kittens -- here they are huddled in a cart, taking their afternoon nap.

I didn't worry at all about these felines --  even if they could be called "homeless",  they were all quite fat and definitely well fed.

We had finally come to the end of our  walk.   From Ginkakuji, where we started, it had been an almost two kilometre chilly but lovely stroll.  From a Bishop to a Buddhist temple, it was an untraditional but entirely appropriate way to celebrate Christmas Day in Kyoto.

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