Posted on Monday, October 09, 2017, under , ,

‘On behalf of Kyoto municipality, thank you for coming today to the special bonsai exhibition’ begins a slim, middle-aged Japanese lady dressed in lemon-tinted kimono, addressing a dozen or so visitors (mostly tourists) who have joined the tour on this rainy Friday afternoon. Her yellowy attire which blends well with the moss and juniper greens of the bonsai exhibits, her black hair styled into a bob cut, her small steps as she glides across the wooden parquet of Nijo castle, her synthetic smile, are all part of the eye-pleasing décor, at the same time feeling a tad oppressive, lacking in warmth and spontaneity. This is Kyoto after all.

The latter is thankfully provided by a colleague of hers, a Japanese male in his early forties congenial, well informed and instantly likeable. Whatever information the lemon-lady delivers in sober, unexcitable manner, he livens up with interesting detail or insight. There is something in his demeanour, calm yet passionate about the subject, that drives visitors to bombard him with questions. For my part, I wait until after the 30-minute tour is over and the tourists have by and large dispersed. This is my chance: everything I always wanted to know about bonsai but was afraid to ask.

Q: Which plant species are most commonly grown?
A: Pine, juniper, maple are the most common. Ordinary, everyday plants.
Q: In human terms, a bonsai plant can be said to be a midget, a person of restricted growth, do you agree?
A: Yes, but with a significant difference: it is a gardener who imposes restriction on the growth. 
Q: The growth of roots too? For instance does a root stop growing because it ‘feels’ it is placed inside a container?
A: As with treetops, bonsai roots are cut and trimmed, otherwise they may grow too long and even damage the container.
Q: But how on earth does a gardener reach the roots in the first place?
A: The plant needs to be lifted up out of its container.
Q: Some of the trees look quite heavy!
A: Yes. It might take at least two people to hold the heavy plant while the third gets busy lopping off the root ends. It takes years, decades, in some cases centuries to look after a single bonsai tree, to keep it alive.
Q: Speaking of which, how old is the oldest bonsai in Japan?
A: Hmm... I’d say 700 or 800 years old.
Q: So, that juniper over there, is one of the oldest?
A: That’s right.                                     
Q: Fascinating. Quite a few of bonsai junipers here have trunks at least partly coloured in white. We find it very impressive.
A: Yes. The white is actually a dead part of the trunk.
Q: We kind of suspected so. Never has a dead thing looked so beautiful!
A: [smiles] Foreigners in particular like the white bonsai trunks.
Q: But how come the dead part does not simply rot?
A: Good question. The white, dead trunk has to be looked after too. It is regularly coated in special solutions to prevent rot and disintegration.
Q: What else should we know to appreciate the bonsai art?
A: One way of enjoying is appreciating the asymmetry of the tree’s shape, which in a good bonsai reflects the irregular shape of things found in nature. Also the bonsai tree has a deeper cut from the front, so that the viewer has a better look. The best way to enjoy bonsai is to crouch down and look up at the tree.
Q: [crouching down and looking up at the old juniper] Ha, the tree looks much bigger from here! I feel much smaller too, as if sitting under a fully grown tree.
A: Which means the gardener has done well.

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Hiyoshi Taisha

Posted on Friday, October 06, 2017, under , , ,

The first thing that catches one’s eye are two wooden structures nestled high up the hill in the midst of a thick, lush forest overlooking Biwa lake. The sight alone is intriguing enough to make one wish to visit the temple in the first place. A map by the footpath suggests large temple grounds. What sticks out is an odd-looking position of three bridges, situated in the very close proximity to each other. Our visit will show that bridges are not the only unusual feature at Hiyoshi Taisha.

At the south gate we are required to pay entrance fee, somewhat surprising as Shinto shrines in Japan are usually visited free of charge. I later learn that in the Middle Ages, the nearby Enryaku-ji temple influenced the shrine to include some Buddhist ethos: could this be the reason for fee inclusion? A middle-aged woman with an overly serious expression hands us the printed guides: the English version, being a single sheet of typed text on A4 sheet of paper, looks a poor cousin to its fancy Japanese counterpart. No complaints though, good intentions appreciated.

After climbing up a longish set of stone steps, we find ourselves in front of a vermillion gate (torii). The torii is built in Sanno style, unusual in that its two top lintels are crowned with a triangular attachment, a sort of gable, thus creating a ‘rooftop’, or perhaps an ‘arms-in-prayer’, effect (Wikipedia suggests Hiyoshi Taisha has the best example of Sanno torii in Japan).

After the obligatory bow, we continue sauntering up a wide gravel path. It is a beautiful, crisp autumn day. After a few minutes another surprise: inside a metal cage two snow monkeys! It strikes us immediately how small and dark the cage is. Poor fellas, they could certainly do with some exercise. Give them more elbow room for pity’s sake!

                    Messengers of God
                    behind metal bars:
                    a pair of macaques

We leave the caged creatures behind and soon come upon a rock apparently of certain import. My companion Y. kindly translates the adjacent notice, which states the rock is considered medicinal. It has a slight depression in the middle, allowing for rainwater to develop on rainy days. Thus formed, the water inside this puddle is believed to be therapeutic, for the ailing eye in particular. Should one then splash one’s eyes with puddle water and expect a miraculous recovery?!

Climbing up the Hachioji hill to reach the aforementioned ‘twin’ shrine halls proves a minor miracle itself. Y. is wearing flat shoes which invariably threaten to fall apart. It does not help that we are sweating like pigs with no towel at hand, that the path is steep and dotted with sharp rocks. It takes us forty or so minutes to reach the two shrines, Sannomiyagu and Ushiogu. The view of lake Biwa is spectacular and for it alone the climb was worth it. We sit down on the steps and take a few panoramic photos. At one moment the breeze carries a strong herbal fragrance over to our nostrils, so strong in fact that for a second I think I have just entered an essential oils store!

                    Hachioji hill:
                    smitten by the essence
                    of an unknown herb
We climb a few more steps to pay respects to a famous Great Golden Rock situated between the two buildings. The rock derives its name from the fact that the sunlight is reflected off it on sunny mornings. The rock is even mentioned in the Kojiki, the oldest written record of Japanese history. I imagine the golden sun reflection must be quite a sight. If I ever decide to come back here on some sunny day, it will only be me in full hiking gear, and with plenty of water!

It is time to walk back downhill. Y. wishes she had a pair of wings to put on then glide back to the lower altitudes! Walking, or more accurately, staggering toward the shrine exit we pass the three stone bridges we saw earlier on the map.  Why are they so close to each other? Y. and I venture a few guesses. Perhaps they were made to serve different social stratums: one for nobility, one for priests, one for peasants. Or were they built for aesthetic effect, as a kind of medieval take on conceptual art installation? The truth, we later find out, is more prosaic than that. After Oda Nobunaga’s army burnt the shrine around 1571, the new buildings were erected soon after. The rebuild included old wooden bridges, which were replaced by the fireproof stone ones, which stand to this day. But why three bridges? The more the merrier, we dare presume.

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