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
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
It’s akin to meditation
and makes you all the more receptive to the dreamy beauty of Muso Kokushi’s
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.
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
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
Ways & means
Sybil Kapoor travelled as a guest of
Kent(0845-618 2212; www.abercrombiekent.co.uk),
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 www.seejapan.co.uk