Kyoto – the Cradle of Zen and I

This week I’m transporting you from Kanazawa to beautiful Kyoto. But before doing that, I have to admit a big omission I have made in my past few posts: I have greatly neglected the Japanese poesy and the Nippon spirit… I have been a bit shrewd to quickly give you a lot of touristic information – I forgot my penchant for romance and beautiful stories! I hope I’ll make it up to you in this post…

You see, in Japan nothing is what it seems (a bit like Harry Potter) – with the exception of the Japanese identity and the traditional values which are sacred – routine and mastery at what one does, striving for perfection, plainly leveled with honour, truth and commitment… the essence of being Japanese…

But I’m not talking about that – I’m more talking about the creative, unequaled syntheses of reality and dream–like experiences, deeply embedded  into the Japanese psyche of story and innovation (think samurai and ninja, linked to manga and anime and projected onto real life projects from living under the sea to a world served and led by robots). Transcending the human essence to reach the machine…

That is what I’m talking about… And I feel quite close to that because I am a dreamer… Of course, life takes its course and then you change – you grow and shift through different spaces and dimensions of your mind, your soul, your humanity… Evolve into movers and shapers, embrace change and cope with all the ugly bits of life that you have to go through… But always going back to being a dreamer – I think dreaming is one of the best things! Don’t understand me wrong; I believe in action, in doing! I think achievement is only of palpable things, real things that give the world the measure of who you are!

So going back to that, I’ll tell you a story about the Shinkansen – the Japanese bullet trains with mythical qualities and significance.

Japan’s first railway line opened in 1872 and has grown to become the ultra-modern railway today: the safest and the most punctual in the world. The Shinkasen’s debut was in 1964 and rapidly became one of Japan’s superheroes – adapted to difficult terrain and earthquaqes, loaded with high-tech sensors and gadgets that have contributed to the impeccable record of no  derailment or collision related incidents or fatalities in its over 50 years history.

But the safety records, as in any great story, are very much owed to a hero: Doctor Yellow – the yellow coloured Shinkansen trains (there are several) that constantly move through the rail network and monitor the condition of the rail and diagnose occurring problems. Because of its safety role, Japanese simply adore Doctor Yellow – a train raised to the rank of folk hero or ‘porte bonheur’ – there is a wide held belief in Japan that seeing Doctor Yellow during your commute brings good fortune… Like Maneki Neko

dr yellow
Doctor Yellow
But this is not all! Most Shinkansen have names, derived from local heroes and intrinsic Japanese held beliefs: the Green Leaves (Aoba) Shinkansen which serves the route Tokyo to Sendai, the White Hawk (Hakutaka) and the Glitter (Kagayaki) which serve the Tokyo to Kanazawa route or the Cherry Blossoms (Sakura) between Shin Osaka to Kagoshima Chuo and Mountain Spirit (Yamabiko) from Tokyo to Morioka route. You just go to the rail station and wait for the train to take on a dream metamorphosis journey…

So, to get from Kanazawa to Kyoto I had to ride the Thunderbird… Great three hours ride – temperamental, but uneventful and happy.

Kyoto – also known as the thousand-year capital because before the emperor’s relocation to Tokyo in 1869, Kyoto has been Japan’s capital  for over a thousand years. Kyoto is one of the richest places of Japan history, religion and culture and nature all around.

Because of its former status as capital, Kyoto has castles and palaces where shoguns and emperors resided for hundreds of years.

My first stop in Kyoto was Nijōjō or the Nijō castle (which can be reached from Kyoto Station with Kyoto City Bus numbers 9, 50 or 101 (15-20 minutes rides). Or just hop on a taxi…

Nijōjō was built in 1603 to accommodate Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first of the Tokugawa shoguns line, who ruled between 1603 and 1868 (known as the Edo period).

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After the Tokugawa Shogunate ended in 1867, the Nijo castle was used as imperial residence and then it was donated to the city of Kyoto and open to public, as an example of castle architecture from the Edo period. Nijo castle was added to the UNESCO list of world heritage sites in 1994 and remains open to the public.

Nijōjō is built as concentric rings of defense – the current entrance to the castle grounds is a large gate to the East; then walk through and reach the Karamon gate to finally get to the Ninomaru palace, which is the focus of attraction. Well deserved, because Ninomaru Palace survived in its authentic form – a network of constructions linked through corridors known as the nightingale floors (they squeak when walking on them and it is thought this was a security measure against intruders). The palace floors are all tatami mats and the vast rooms of the palace have numerous sliding doors (fusuma) which are opulently painted with representations of nature: cherry, plum, maple and gingko trees.  Beside the beautiful flora and fauna adornments, most ceilings and fusuma are lavishly covered with gold leaf, giving the palace a luxurious lustre.

Two interesting facts to watch for while visiting Nijōjō: first, when taking over the palace in 1868, the Emperor ordered the change of all insignia in the palace, therefore the Imperial Seal of japan (the stylized Chrysanthemum Seal (kikumon) has replaced the Tokugawa shoguns Mon (three hollyhock leaves inside a circle) on all palace door knobs and gates (the Karamon gate Imperial Seal can be easily spotted at the top).  The second is the graphic representations of the tigers in one of the hall rooms: the tigers look somehow distorted and created as mystical figures. And that is just because  the artists that painted the hall have never seen tigers in reality. Tigers were known from mainland China but they have never lived in the japan islands and the painters relied exclusively on the description and images from travellers to China at the time.

If you are in Kyoto, one of the main things you should do, is finding ‘Zen’. Most of you are familiar with the term, but for those who are not, Zen is a branch of Buddhism (born in China during the Tang dynasty – Chan Buddhism) with strong emphasis on dhyana, focus-meditation which is paramount. The true nature of the human spirit is not achieved through its physical dimensions, but through the metamorphosis of the mind and spirit thorough the purity of meditation and a liberated way of living, detached from physical. The real practitioners seek hermit-like lifestyle to reach the level of meditation allowing them to transcend their mortal physicality.

It seems that Zen debut in the West was during the late 1800s at the World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893, when a Japanese Zen monk introduced the Zen philosophy to a wide audience. However, the Zen movement in the West only took off in the late 1950s, being purported by an increased number of Asian immigrants.

Since then, a series of writings have influenced the spread the Zen ideology. One of the main Western figures to focus on and practice Zen, was Reginald Horace Blyth (1898 – 1964) with his epic 1960s five-volume work ‘Zen and Zen Classics’.

As any Buddhist descendent philosophy, Zen originated in India when Buddha  held up a flower and Kassapa (Kasyapa in Sanskrit, the third Buddha to appear in this world) smiled, showing that he understood the wordless essence of dharma. Then dharma transmitted to Kassapa, who is considered the second patriarch of Zen.

The Oxford Dictionary tells us that dharma comes originally from Sanskrit and in Indian religion, means ‘the eternal law of the cosmos, inherent in the very nature of things’. In fact, dharma is a key concept with multiple meanings in almost all major Indian religions — Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism. There is no single word translation for dharma. But the key is that dharma helps us to find happiness and peace within ourselves. And so, Zen became a strong hold for human introspection and serenity in an attempt to transcend the physical hardship of life. Today Zen is a philosophy that encompasses universal values, such as ‘world peace’.

In Japan, Buddhism was introduced from China during the Nara period (710 – 794), but Zen was recognized as separate school of thought during the Kamakura period (1185 – 1333).

Kyoto is one of Japan’s most important religious cities. There are over 1600 temples and shrines, 16 of which are part of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It is difficult to decide what to visit, but I’ll talk to you about two of the most beautiful and more significant sites in terms of religious ethos and  preservation of artefacts. They both belong to Zen Buddhism.

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First one is the Kinkaku-ji (also named Rokuon-ji or the Golden Pavillion) which is thought to be one of the most famous and most visited in Japan. It is easily accessible from Kyoto station, by bus 101 or 205 (approx. 40 min journey).

As the name tells you, this temple is covered with gold leaf (from Kanazawa gold leaf artisans) and it is indeed a VISION of beauty. It sits majestuous, on a very large pond, surrounded by an immense Zen garden. In fact, the garden is a karesansui, a dry landscape garden that is very much part of the Zen peisage.

Kinkaku-ji has been built during late 1300s, as a retirement villa for Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, third shogun of the Ashikaga dynasty (1368 – 1394), during the Muromachi period. When Yoshimitsu died in 1408, this became a Rinzai sect Zen temple and it is very similar in construction with the Ginkaku-ji (the Silver Pavillion) which was built few decades later by Yoshimitsu’s grandson, Ashikaga Yoshimasa.

Kinkaku-ji has been destroyed by fire few times and then re-built. The current structure dates from reconstruction in 1955, after it was set on fire by a fanatic monk in 1950.

The temple gardens are delightful to visit and they hold authentic dry landscape gardens architecture, with mixed mystical stone figures which you can apparently ‘bribe’ for good luck (make sure you have enough coins change in your pocket to throw at the stones for the ‘hit’ of  a lifetime).

Very close to the exit from the gardens, you will see the Fudo Hall, with a statue of Fudo Myoo, one of the Five Wisdom Kings, protectors of Buddhism. The statue is said to be carved by Kobo Daishi himself (very important historical religious figure).

Continuing my Zen journey, the next temple I visited in Kyoto was the Daitoku-ji temple, which is in fact a complex of Zen temples and subtemples. Daitoku-ji is home to some of the most beautiful karesansui (Zen gardens) in subtemples such as Koto-in, Zuiho-in, Obai-in and Daisen-in.

Due to the time constraint, I’ll focus on my visit to Daisen-in, temple which belongs to the Rinzai Zen school. Daisen-in (which translates as The Academy of Great immortals’) was founded and built between 1509 and 1513 by Kogaku Soko (1464 – 1548) and it’s well renown for its screen paintings and karesansui.

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The paintings date and are representative of the Muromachi period and were the work of Soami (1472 – 1525), a Zen monk and ink painter influenced by the ink landscape paintings of the Song Dynasty period in China. He is recognized as a master for his painting technique of ethereal landscapes using diluted ink. His work is considered a real masterpiece of the time.

The Daisen-in is also very famous for its karesansui. The temple halls are fluid and are at the centre of the garden, which has fascinated and intrigued generations of philosophers, historians and writers. Basically, the garden is described by Gunter Nitschke as the ‘life of man in symbolic form’, pure metaphorical expression of a journey through life. It contains four spaces which freely flow in order and they seem to represent the complete circle of life, starting with birth (represented in the first garden by the waterfall and the representation of the Mount Horai, the meeting place of the Eight Immortals ‘xian’ from Chinese mythology), which continues through the gate to the second garden, as two river streams (made of gravel which is meticulously maintained) that ends into the final ‘ocean’ with two piles of salt, which represents eternity (in the fourth garden).

The garden is full of Buddhist symbolism and contains  figures of turtles struggling through trough turbulent waters, signifying the struggle of life, a tiger head, a cow and the footprint of Buddha – all trademarks of Buddhist allegory.

But besides absorbing the vast significance of the place, I think the most important moment I had at Daisen-in was the meeting with Master Zen, Soen Ozeky – embodiment of all round wisdom and joy… I think words would simply fail me to describe this meeting, so to sum this up, I can only leave you with Master Ozeki thoughts, that he wrote in his poem ‘Words For Each Day’:

‘Each Day In Life Is TrainingTraining For MyselfThough Failure Is PossibleLiving Each MomentEqual To AnythingReady For EverythingI Am Alive – I Am The MomentMy Future Is Here And NowFor If I Cannot Endure TodayWhen And Where Will I?

I am indeed training – running the journey of life…  And so do you…

Run fast, run strong, run free! Come back next week! X

The Running Blogger




1 Kinkakujicho, Kita Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 603-8361, Japan

Nijo-jo castle

541 Nijojocho, Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 604-8301, Japan


39 thoughts on “Kyoto – the Cradle of Zen and I

  1. The first time I learned about Kyoto was in second grade, when I was given a task about Japan in Geography classes. Forty years on, I still dream of visiting the place.
    Thanks for your post and your images.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I visited Japan once. But sadly, due to being broke, I couldn’t make the most of my stopover and just spent 14 hours in a generic hotel while waiting for my next flight. *So sad*

    Liked by 1 person

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