What Does a Golden Temple and a Zen Rock Garden Have in Common: The Two Most Popular Places for Contemplation and Reflection in Kyoto

Golden Pavilion in Kyoto

The two most popular temple sites in Kyoto seem to be opposites:  stunning versus serene, flashy versus quiet introspection.  The Golden Pavilion at Kinkakuji Temple and the famous Rock Garden at the Ryoanji Temple are just a few bus stops away from each other, located on the North West side of Kyoto. They are seemingly worlds apart, but in some ways these two temples have much in common. Both temples make your mind and thoughts pause to contemplate the beauty in nature. Both temples are Unesco World Heritage sites.

Golden Pavilion in Kyoto

The Golden Pavilion is both flashy and serene, located at a small reflection lake, surrounded by beautiful pine trees and poetically placed rocks. The Zen-Buddhist Temple was originally built as a retirement villa in 1393 for Shogun Ashiraga, who lived in abundant luxury while Kyoto’s people suffered from famine, earthquakes and plague. His son turned the pavilion into a Zen temple. Oddly, each floor features a different style of architecture: first floor contrasts the upper gilded floors by featuring the Shinden-Zukuri style architecture with solid black treated timber frame and white plaster. Second floor is gold leaf finished in Bukke style, similar to Samurai residences, whereas the third level features a Chinese Zen style gilded inside out. Sadly, the original temple was burned down by a disenchanted monk in 1950, but was rebuilt a few years later.

Golden Pavilion, Kyoto
Temple grounds at the Golden Pavilion, featuring pine trees trimmed to perfection

The Golden Pavilion cannot be visited inside, but the mesmerizing golden reflections of the pavilion in the  lake makes this a very poetic place worth visiting, although it gets a lot of visitors. Expect to take turns to photograph this poetic scenery and try to avoid selfie sticks. Walk around the reflection lake to admire the temple and its stunning reflections in the lake, but do not expect a contemplative spiritual experience. A path leads through the temple garden to an Edo period teahouse and small shrine near the exit.

Address: Kinkakuji Temple1 Kinkakujicho, Kita-ku, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 603-8361. Tel: +81 75-461-0013. Admission: 400 Yen, open from 9am to 5pm.

The backside of the Golden Pavilion

On the other hand, the most famous of all Zen rock gardens at Ryoanji Temple, built in late 15th century, features a small, carefully composed miniature landscape of rocks arranged in gravel, which is raked to perfection by monks daily. It represent the endless ocean and ripples in water. Renowned for its simplicity and purity, this is the most abstract of all Zen Gardens. The garden is small, about the size of a tennis court, enclosed by ochre walls, and can only be seen from the raised deck of the temple. Visitors are seated on long steps facing the rock garden, lending a perfect space for meditation and introspection.

Zen Rock Garden at Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto. Fifteen rocks are meticulously placed in five islands surrounded by carefully raked gravel

The fifteen rocks of different sizes and shapes are meticulously placed in five different islands in such a way that you cannot see can see all rocks from any place. In this way they will always leaving room for improvement, as an aid to incite meditation about the true meaning of life.

Meditation and introspection at the steps facing the Rock Garden

The white gravel symbolizes water, purity, self-discipline and emptiness and is used to stimulate meditation by reducing nature to abstract form. A landscape seemingly suspended in time. A powerful abstract garden which is meant to induce a deep state of meditation which evokes thoughts of peace and beauty.

Meditation and reception hall facing the Rock Garden featuring tatami mats and decorated sliding screen walls

The meditation and reception halls facing the rock garden are very minimalist with their tatami mats and beautiful simply decorated sliding screens.

Address: 13 Ryoanji-Goryo-no-Sita-cho, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto City. Tel.: +81-(0)75-463-2216. Open Year Round: Winter (December1-End of February) 8:30-16:30, (March 1-November 30) 8:00-17:00. Admission: Adult 500 Yen

Written by Zia Hansen. Photos by Zia Hansen

Explore the Old Pleasure District of Asakusa in Tokyo: Where Old World Charm meets Serenity

Springtime in Japan
Shopping street leading to the Senso-Ji Temple in Asakusa, Tokyo

A place of old world charm, spectacular temple grounds and great food, Asakusa is a vibrant oasis to visit and stay in Tokyo. Traditions are alive and the area oozes of ambiance. What used to be an area filled with gangsters, samurais, writers, artists, geishas and courtesans is now mainly a safe leisure and spiritual area, anchored by the Senso-Ji Temple founded in 628.

Senso-Ji Temple on a busy Sunday. Thousands of people visiting the shrine every day

The large Thunder God Gate is vibrant and impressive, and creates a powerful spiritual transition between the bustling life of Tokyo and the old world charm. A long shopping street leads to the temple, offering the best souvenirs of Tokyo as well as delightful mouthwatering street food. It is extremely crowded during the day with temple visitors. Take the side streets if you want to move faster, or savor the experience of being carried away by the crowds. Large gates with huge lanterns create the transition between the shopping arcade and the temple grounds.

Large lanterns at the temple gate

The temple architecture is impressive, with its layers of red roof structures, lanterns and shrines. Incense burning adds a sensory delight, but is overshadowed by the many young women in their bold patterned kimonos. I was delighted seeing the traditions are kept alive. Several smaller shrines and Japanese gardens dot the large temple grounds, making it a perfect weekend excursion for Tokyo’s residents and tourists alike.

Traditions are alive in Asakusa, where families arrive at the temple dressed in kimonos

Several quaint shopping arcades lead to the temple grounds from the side streets and offer some of the freshest sushi I have ever tasted, due to its proximity to the fish market. Old ramen houses and Izakaya restaurants are lining the side streets in the neighborhood. During the day the food stalls are competing for your attention, offering an array of freshly grilled seafood and beef skewers.

Street food stalls offer fresh seafood and many other delights

If your passion is the samurai history you will find several shops that can cater to your alter-ego whims, -or you will find numerous kimono rental places that will transfer you into a feminine seductive goddess or a stunning traditional couple.

Night life in Asakusa: charming young women

At night time the neighborhood slows down to a provincial old town charm and offers a very different ambiance and experience.

Shopping street in Asakusa turn into a samurai/geisha gallery at night

The local food will tantalize your taste buds, or you can walk around the old samurai district with the possibility to meet one of the remaining 40 Geishas.

Dine with the locals in Asakusa, even on cold evenings you can enjoy the street ambiance

Visiting the temple ground at night is a much more serene experience of calmness and devotion.

Temple grounds at night

I highly recommend staying at the Richmond Premier Hotel, which offers views over the temple grounds and is just steps away from delightful local restaurants and the charming shopping arcades leading into the Senso-Ji Temple. The guestrooms are very comfortable, and spacious and the staff is very helpful. Richmond Premier Hotel,  2-7-10 Asakusa, Taito-ku, Tokyo. Tel; +81-3-5806-3155

View from our hotel room over the temple grounds with the Skytree in the distance

Traditional Ryokans are also available in the area. Asakusa is easily reached by the Ginza metro line at Asakusa Station.

Please share if you enjoyed reading.

Writing and photography by Zia Hansen

DESTINATION VIETNAM: IMPERIAL CITY HUE

Imperial Palace Hue

You can arrive at Hue in several different ways, by train or flight from Hanoi. We traveled from Hanoi to Hue via Danang Airport. Based on our experiences, by all means avoid flying Vietjet Airlines as they apparently are notorious for cancelling flights, causing us a “common” 5 hour delay.  From Danang the supposedly scenic route became a grueling night drive through roads full of road construction and huge trucks whirling rocks and dust. Our driver tried a slight shortcut resulting in a shredded tire around midnight with endless rows of speeding trucks passing by on a dangerous construction corner in the middle of seemingly nowhere.  The car’s spare tire was installed by the dim light of our Iphone’s flashlight and turned out to be only partially inflated.  Our driver continued at a speed of 10 km per hour.  The drive seemed endless and our 4 star hotel seemed to be fast asleep with staff sleeping on couches in the lobby-that is a first experience during my frequent travels. 

Why visit Hue?

Imperial Palace Hue
Part of the stunning Imperial Palace entrance across from the Citadel

Hue is designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site and has an intriguing past as both former Imperial City and National Capital.  It was both the residence of emperors and the national capital from 1802-1945, until the communist government moved its government in Hanoi.  Hue’s central location very close to the border between the North and South during the Vietnam War placed the city in a very vulnerable position during the Vietnam War.  The city suffered double damage, due to a combination of the American military bombing of historic buildings held by the North Vietnamese, and also by the massacre at Hue’ committed by the communist forces. After the war ended, many of the historic features of Hue’ were neglected as they were seen by the victorious communist regime and other Vietnamese as “relics from the feudal regime”.  Many historical areas of the city are currently being restored after the designation as Unesco World Heritage Site.  The Imperial City occupies a large, walled area on the north side of the Perfume River.

Imperial Palace Hue
Spectacular ceramic roof ornamentation adorn many of the restored buildings

The vast 19th century Citadel and Imperial Palace are delightful to visit, surrounded by a moat and thick stonewall fortifications, encompassing some well restored palaces and shrines as well as parts of the forbidden Purple City, once the Emperor’s home.  Only the emperors, concubines, eunuchs and those close enough to them were granted access-alive.  Throughout the Citadel visual and written descriptions provide good insight into the cruel and lavish lifestyle within the walls in multiple languages.  The architecture is spectacular.

Imperial Palace Hue
Part of a wonderful reception hall
Imperial Palace Hue
Study the details: Intriguing roof ornamentations
Imperial Palace Hue
Exit gate to the Imperial City

Outside the Citadel bicycle rickshaw drivers are uncomfortably aggressive trying to drum up a business opportunity.  One driver tried to block the pedestrian intersection.  In my opinion there is really no need to use a rickshaw as most hotels are in walking distance and the area beyond the Citadel appears to be of limited visitor interest.  Perfume River seems almost unused, only one café’ has taken advantage of the location almost across the Citadel as well as a smaller night market mainly geared on tourists.  

Dragon river boat

Primitive colorful family owned river boats with dragon painted tin decorations were lined up along the river, and as this was a quiet time of the year the boat owners were hawking business.  Truly a family business, many boats were hawked by the older daughter, while the mother or father were running the boats, and their younger daughter would try to sell tourist souvenirs and refreshments while cruising the river.

Riverboat Hue

Families seemed to be living on the boats, which were only outfitted with loose plastic chairs arranged loosely on vinyl flooring resembling imperial carpeting.  

Riverboat Hue

Along the river are monuments, including the tombs of several emperors.  The tour along the river is not the most charming adventure, but can offer plenty of opportunities for future tourism development.  We took a tour to the Thien Mu Pagoda which was beautiful and in a stunning location at a river bend.  I have seen many much more stunning pagodas in other parts of the world, but this location was spectacular. Unfortunately this pagoda structure was not accessible.

Pagoda Hue
A majestic entrance to the pagoda from the river
Pagoda Hue
Thien Mu Pagoda

Hue remains a tranquil and conservative city, without much city life, and in my opinion is worthy of a full day of visiting, but not much more during the colder time of year.  Supposedly there are several good beaches about 15 minutes away.  The somber history of the Vietnam War era can be explored by day excursions to the tunnels dug by the Vietcong forces. We skipped this tour and only saw the scenic route driving to Hoi An.

Written by Zia Hansen. Photos by Zia Hansen