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A Stroll Along the Philosopher's Walk in Kyoto Reveals the Traditional Aspects of Life in Japan


KYOTO, Japan — From the train station of the ancient capital of Kyoto, the vista of gritty modernity seems interchangeable with any other ugly Japanese city. The outlandish Kyoto Tower rising into the smog mocks one's expectations of finding the essence of Japanese culture and refinement.

Although the guidebooks tell of treasures in a city spared U.S. bombing in World War II, this hardly seems the renowned city of majestic monasteries, elegant inns and secluded moss gardens. And yet, if the tourist goes about things the right way, Kyoto can be everything the guidebooks promise.

This is a miraculous city to roam and discover. One can still hear the geisha clip-clopping down ancient, narrow streets in their wooden sandals as dusk falls, or come across the best lacquerware shop in Japan, or walk up a forest path to find oneself suddenly face-to-face with a breathtakingly beautiful wooden temple.

So the challenge is to transport oneself from the first Kyoto of cement blocks and underground malls to the second, minimizing as much as possible the initial shock and disappointment.

Surely one solution is to pass the first day or two cocooned in the delightful precincts of Higashiyama, the eastern ridge of the city. There one can walk along tree-lined canals and past fine wooden houses, through bamboo groves to pine-shaded, centuries-old temples, to secluded garden restaurants and refined inns that have housed visitors for generations.

If one's luck holds, as ours did one day last spring, perhaps the tour groups of uniformed, shouting high-school boys will be on a blessedly different schedule, and perhaps the robed and shaved monks of Nanzenji monastery will be bustling, oblivious to tourists, in preparation for a festival celebrating their temple's 700th birthday.

If one's luck holds, then after a day or two one can return to central Kyoto, fortified, one's faith restored, to root out the hidden charms of downtown with its covered shopping streets, its streetcars, its centuries-old ninja houses, its craft shops and restaurants.

But be warned: The tourist who begins in the peacefulness of eastern Kyoto may never want to leave. The spine of the eastern suburb of Shishigatani is the Philosopher's Walk, a quiet path running north-south alongside a narrow canal that was a daily walking route for one of Japan's famous thinkers, Kitaro Nishida.

To its eastern, uphill side, a string of temples flanks the mountainside just as it becomes steep; to the west, dropping off toward downtown, lies a pleasant suburb with occasional unobtrusive tea houses and noodle shops.

The northern anchor of the walk is the famous Ginkakuji, or Silver Pavilion, with its remarkable garden. The southern anchor is the almost-as-famous precinct of Zen temples and gardens and vegetarian restaurants known as Nanzenji.

In between are several temples that are considerably less famous, considerably less crowded--and just as delightful to visit. The walk works equally well from either direction and can take anywhere from an hour or two for a very abbreviated tour, to a whole day, if you stop to savor all there is.

Arriving in mid-afternoon, we checked in at our ryokan, or Japanese-style inn, and then wandered over to Nanzenji. Retired Emperor Kameyama built a villa here in the 13th Century, and then had it turned into a Zen temple. The original buildings burned down in fighting between rival Buddhist sects, and today the earliest date from about 1600.

Walking past the massive, two-story wooden gate (San-mon), we felt inclined to forgive such crass modernity. Majestic pines towered above the pebbled paths, a dark background to the fresh green of the delicate Japanese maples scattered throughout the temple's large compound.

Behind the Konchi-in subtemple, we found ourselves alone in a beautiful garden, just as Zen in feeling but a bit more accessible than the famed Ryoan-ji rock garden across town: raked sand and weathered boulders, but also craggy pines and, behind, a walking path through lush moss and shrubbery. At the end of the path, somewhat incongruously, was a small, black-lacquer shrine built in 1628 for the great general and unifier of Japan, Tokugawa Ieyasu.

We then walked north, passing the Nomura Art Museum, with its pleasant garden and collection of tea-ceremony utensils. The museum backs onto a warren of private, tree-lined lanes that, with typical wooden Japanese houses hiding behind bamboo or wooden privacy fences, is definitely worth exploring.

Just beyond the museum is Eikan-do, one of the most underrated temples in Kyoto. Built into the green mountainside, this temple, also known as Zenrin-ji, begins as a kind of overgrown park, with a carp pond and even a kindergarten near the entrance. The temple halls, with their faded screens and fresh-cut tatami mats, are connected by a series of covered, open walkways that twist and turn along the hillside, framing a series of gardens and courtyards.

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