The Universe In A Moment At Ryōanji

It’s a Sunday morning in Kyoto and I am sitting on the long wooden steps of the hōjō, the abbott’s residence of Ryōanji Temple – one of 1,600 temples in this historic city.

At my feet is the temple’s famous karesansui, or dry rock garden. In a small rectangle of white gravel, measuring just twenty-five by ten meters and raked to perfection by the monks each morning, fifteen stones have been arranged in such a way that they are never all visible from the same vantage point.
At first, I move up and down the veranda, craning my neck to spot every stone. At the same time, much moves with me: the weather, shifting from bright sunshine to wintry wind in a matter of minutes, as well as the crowds, also shifting in and out, debating in a dozen languages whether or not they can spot the fifteenth stone.

But what never move are the stones themselves – and I realize that perhaps this is the test of Ryōanji, and its secret.

“Every moment has a little universe in it,” says my friend Don, who has brought me here, and indeed I am struck by how the entire world can be felt in this moment, even when seated for hours in the same spot. Despite that elusive stone, there is still much to be felt and experienced: all the nationalities represented by other tourists, all the centuries of time embedded in the moss and gravel, all the groups of students from across the country, who are delighted when I manage even one word of Japanese.

Inscribed on a nearby stone washbasin, which dates to the 17th century, is a four-character message that reads, “I learn only to be contented,” or, according to a different translation, “What one has is all one needs.”

Here at Ryōanji, I can feel this to be true – that with or without the fifteenth stone, the moment is always, forever, enough.

Photo Of The Day: Koyasan, Japan’s Temple Town

Between the gentle peaks of the Kii moutain range, just south of Osaka, sit over 100 Buddhist temples in a beautifully dense forest. This seemingly hidden town of Koyasan, has possibly the densest concentration of temples anywhere in Japan, all of startlingly different architectural styles, from the simple to the ridiculous, none of which are any less than astounding. Xiaojun Deng beautifully shows the iconic vermilion color of Japanese temples in this photo of the Konpon Daito pagoda. Koyasan makes for an amazing and unique day trip from Osaka or Kyoto, showing Japan‘s often forgotten mountainous side.

If you have an amazing travel shot, share it with us in our Gadling Flickr Pool and it may be featured as a future Photo of the Day.

Five Scenes From A Spring Sojourn In Kyoto

I’ve just returned to Japan to lead a tour of Kyoto and Shikoku for two and a half weeks. In my first 24 hours here, in Kyoto, I’ve tried to pay special attention to everything because I know that our first impressions in a place are always the freshest. After a day or two, the initially striking detail becomes commonplace. Three things have struck me tellingly in these first 24 hours. The first is the way every package in Japan – the toothbrush in my hotel room, the little cookie wrapped in plastic, the dried squid I bought in the convenience store – comes with a tiny triangular slit cut into one end, so that you never have to struggle to open it. The second thing is the ubiquity of vending machines. One of the first things I noticed after going through customs in Osaka airport was the bright blinking vending machines that offered both hot and cold drinks – actually, I’d forgotten about the hot drinks and only realized this with a start after I pushed what I imagined was a nice cool ice coffee and picked up a hand-burning hot coffee instead. Last night I passed literally a dozen vending machines in the two-block stroll I took from my hotel in Kyoto. And the third thing is this: this morning, my first morning in Kyoto, I took the elevator from the 14th floor to the second-floor dining room for the breakfast buffet. On my way back to my room, I shared the elevator with three neatly coiffed and coutured middle-aged women. They were going to the 10th floor, and when the elevator reached their floor and the door opened, the women all bowed to me and said, “O-saki-ni, shitsureishimasu.” Translated, this means: “Excuse me for leaving before you.” For me, these three things symbolize Japan’s pervading thoughtfulness, dedication to service and consideration of others. It’s wonderful to be back!


I learned a new word today: sakura-hubuki. Literally this means “a rainfall of cherry blossoms.” My tour group experienced this pink-petaled rainfall as we walked along the Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto past a sparkling stream. Cherry trees line the path and at one point the breeze swelled and suddenly we were surrounded in swirling soft-scented petals, landing gently on our shoulders and gathering in our hair like snowflakes. Magic!


When it rains on a spring day in the back streets of Kyoto, a different world emerges: the grays and blacks and whites of the cobbled streets shine, the fallen cherry blossom petals glisten in pink relief against the wet stone, the branches of the trees seem drenched in bright spring green, umbrellas blossom and the tittering Japanese tourists in their brilliant rented kimonos seem to have sprung from a woodblock scene.


I have just spent an out-of-time hour at a traditional tea ceremony. The gracious and elegant hostess explained the intricate choreography of the ceremony, where each minute gesture – stepping into the tea room, wiping a bamboo spoon, whisking the tea, turning the bowl toward the guest – is carefully thought out and requires weeks or even months to master. She said that “wa-ke-se-jaku” is at the heart of the tea ceremony; “wa” is harmony; “ke” is respect; “se” is purity; and “jaku” is tranquility. After an hour I emerged feeling entirely refreshed but even more, transported – as if I’d been taken to a different plane entirely. And then I realized that I had – I’d been transported to the plane of wa-ke-se-jaku.


In the cobbled, winding-lane neighborhood of Kyoto I’ve adopted as my home, I’ve just discovered a tatami-matted teahouse with its own private garden, where koi lazily swim, water plonks from a bamboo spout, and moss patches the pocks in ancient-looking rocks. I am sitting on tatami sipping matcha, thick green tea, and nibbling on a rice paste and red bean sweet and scribbling in my journal. I love the neighborhood temples of Kyoto, the perfectly tended pocket parks, the museum-like shops that sell grainy bowls and shiny lacquerware – but I feel like I could stay in this tranquil tatami-matted space for a day and a night and never feel the need to leave. I need look no further; Kyoto is here.

Photo Of The Day: Sunset At Kiyomizu-dera, Kyoto

It’s difficult to describe the magic of Kyoto, Japan, but today’s Photo of the Day comes awfully close. Taken at sunset from the Kiyomizu-dera temple, the image showcases the traditional architecture of the temple, the bright reds and oranges of the fall foliage, the city below and the mountains in the distance. Capturing the shot wasn’t a simple endeavor, but Flickr user Chung Hu persisted:

It seemed like the whole Japan was there the day that we went. We managed to squeeze ourselves up to the edge of a viewing platform during sunset. No tripod use was allowed. I took a few bracketing shots, but in the end, decided to go with the single shot exposure with my trusty grad filter.

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[Photo Credit: Flickr user Chung Hu]