Arashiyama / Kokedera

Today was a day we had planned for a long time – having written to the monks of Kokedera temple months ago to ask if we could visit their moss garden Saiho-ji, and receiving an invitation card in the mail. We decided to make a day of it by heading west to Arashiyama, a small town on the western outskirts of Kyoto which is a popular tourist spot. From the station we walked to the bamboo forests and Tenryu-ji, one of Kyoto’s greatest and oldest temples, with a wonderful garden including a small area thought to be the oldest garden in Japan. The bamboo forests were quite amazing, although overrun with people walking the road, punctuated by taxis driving among the crowds. Serene, not so much.

With some planning and some luck we found the local bus from Arashiyama to Kokedera and took a short ride to the temple with time to spare for our 1pm appointment. We walked up the roads behind the temple and Mem found a track leading into another enormous bamboo forest, a short walk in the rain with nobody else at all, and it was incredible, far surpassed the earlier trail. Time wasn’t on our side so we headed back to Kokedera, where a friendly man in a suit inspected our invitation, asked the girls’ ages and immediately docked our entrance fee by half. They were the only kids there – but they sat with us on the tatami floor and wrote kanji sutras by tracing the intricate outlines given on a paper sheet using traditional block ink and a tiny writing brush. Both girls did a wonderful job and were interested by the monks chanting (which fascinated Mem and I, sonorous recitation punctuated by bells and gongs, a steady drum meter adding to the hypnotic effect). The girls’ sutras looked like lovely renderings of the shapes on the paper – mine looked like an insect had partly drowned in ink and spent some time thrashing about trying to recover. E was quite disappointed to leave the kanji because she was loving it – but we wrote our own prayers on the paper, took them to the low table, bowed and then entered the garden. It was raining lightly but steadily, but when it’s a moss garden viewing it in the rain is a plus, not a drawback. It was as lovely as we’d hoped, and even the dozens of other people present didn’t spoil the magic. I think I wore out the shutter button on my camera.

After the girls had been such good sports – and I mean incredibly good, not a murmur of complaint about the complex travel, sober ceremony or even the sanity of walking slowly around a damp garden in the rain – we decided to follow Uncle Dean’s recommendation of a trip to the monkeys. A solid hike up 150m of mountain height led to a fairly average looking caged building – but the cage was for us, so we could feed the monkeys from within, who were otherwise roaming the park freely. Aside from a couple of moments of unease (these guys are pretty large, move very fast and get cranky quite a lot) the girls were entranced, and happily fed peanuts and apple chunks to the panhandling monkeys through the wire. Very very exciting and a couple of keepsake soft toys completed the grand slam. Train back was quite full and we didn’t get to sit down – a rest at the hotel before heading out for some very tasty ramen wasn’t quite enough, and we hurried back through the now pelting rain to get Edie to bed, while Callie nailed a small tub of chocolate brownie ice-cream, crowned her favourite there and then. I have no idea where the girls get their zing from but am beginning to notice it correlates quite closely with ice cream consumption.

Quiet day tomorrow I think. But this was a great one.

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