Ancient regime

Shortlisted for the Kate Whiteman Award on Food and Travel, Guild of Food Writers, 2011

Opposite: The moss garden that surrounds Kokedera.  This article first appeared in House & Garden, November 2010.

Kneeling uncomfortably in the Saiho-ji Zen Buddhist temple (known as Kokedera, or the Moss Temple) in Arashiyama, on the western outskirts of Kyoto, I suddenly realised that I was utterly happy.   I was meticulously tracing out the Heart Sutra – a popular Buddhist scripture - as was my husband and our guide. Our travel agent had booked weeks ahead to gain entry for us to the temple, and we were not allowed in until we’ve copied out the sutra.  

As I carefully ground my ink, I thought of Sei Shonagon writing The Pillow Book in the same way. I hadn’t appreciated that the ink itself has a subtle fragrance or that it takes time to sense how your brush will absorb the ink and move across the script.   It’s akin to meditation and makes you all the more receptive to the dreamy beauty of Muso Kokushi’s fourteenth-century garden.   Today it is covered with 120 different kinds of moss, which create cloud-like forms beneath the dappled maples and azaleas. Japan, I realise, is a state of mind, and in Kyoto it is a Zen-like state of mind.

We had arrived in Japan a few days earlier and felt instantly as though we had entered another world. It’s not just the fact that pervasive good manners and punctuality make you feel deeply civilised, it’s the underlying sense of harmony. Nothing jars your sensibilities.   Our elegant, clean-lined room at the Hyatt Regency Kyoto smelt of fresh linen; the bathroom was deliciously spacious; and there was everything you might need, from toothbrush to a yukata (a casual form of kimono). Making your guest feel at home is an ancient art in Japan.

Even the hotel’s Riraku Spa felt different. Every movement was considered and elegant. My feet were washed in warm water, and incense was spilt on to my hands; I inhaled and, thus purified, enjoyed a Japanese aromatherapy massage with organic Chidoriya oils.   Normally, I tense up in anticipation of a painful prod, but the firm rhythmic strokes sent my mind floating back to the inspiring Zen temple gardens I’d visited earlier in the day.  

Kyoto is the home of Zen gardening and there are literally dozens of places to visit, many of them World Heritage Sites, such as the Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion) temple and Tenryu-ji temple. Along with the moss garden, Kennin-ji - Kyoto’s oldest Zen temple, dating back to the early thirteenth century - was my favourite. Its shoji-screen-walled rooms and covered walkways link white gravel, rocks and green moss gardens.   Even the trees are pruned to a distillation of their natural forms.

It is not until you travel into the countryside, however, that you begin to understand the constant references to nature in Kyoto’s art, food and literature. Hoshinoya, a beautiful new hotel in Arashiyama, sits in woodland overlooking the blue-green Oigawa river.   Lichen-clad wild maples, cherries and cryptomeria (Japanese cedar) grow wild on the steep hillsides. Rainwater gurgles down the slope, hidden by ferns, moss and rocks; monkeys chatter overhead in the trees.

Just like those in a traditional ryokan (Japanese inn), every room is designed to frame a natural landscape.   Here, you can contemplate nature from the luxury of a low, modern, bamboo sofa.   Yet, the exquisitely decorated, delicious-smelling, hi-tech rooms are 100 years old and are on the site of the library of Ryoi Suminokura’s, a great seventeenth-century merchant. Arashiyama, first became a popular resort in the Heian period (794-1185) when Kyoto’s nobility used it as a playground.   Even Genji, in the eleventh-century Tale of Genji , ventured to its mysterious bamboo groves and hidden cottages.  

As if to conjure up the Heian mood, Ms Tsuchida, our English-speaking assistant at Hoshinoya, introduced us to the incense ceremony, which dates back to that period. She showed us how to prepare our incense, and how to create a tiny Mount Fuji-shape ash cone into which the smouldering incense was placed. We turned the cone ritualistically to release its smoky fragrance - as in all things Japanese, every movement had to be measured to ensure perfection.

Knowing my interest in Japanese food, Ms Tsuchida also arranged for us to learn how to make kyogashi.   These are Kyoto sweetmeats that are made from glutinous rice, adzuki beans, sugar and kudzu flour. Kyogashi – created originally for the tea ceremony and rituals within the imperial court - represent the highest and most abstract form of sweetmeat, often inspired by seasonal poetry.

We took the little hotel boat down the jade green river to visit Oimatu, a renowned tea-shop that has been making them since 1908.   While we manipulated our mauve and cream mixtures to create iris-shape kyogashi, a customer sat alone contemplating her beautiful tea cup, chosen by the proprietor to reflect the day, before meditatively sampling her tea and sweetmeat.   In Japan, top restauranteurs and kyogashi makers commission their crockery from renowned artisans.   As I sipped my bitter green tea, less than half way through my trip, I realised that I already wanted to return to Japan.  


Ways & means  

Sybil Kapoor travelled as a guest of Abercrombie & Kent   (0845-618 2212;, which tailor-makes trips to Japan.   A 12-night trip to Kyoto based on the above itinerary costs from £4,795 per person, including flights with All Nippon Airways, B&B accomaodation and English-speaking guides. For more information about Japan, visit


Sybil KapoorCook NowRead NowBooksLucky DipGet In Touch

© Sybil Kapoor. All rights reserved.
Website design by ph9
 photography © Raj Kapoor 2010