It is astonishing how quickly one can feel at home in a new place where one does not know the language–at least when one has competent children leading the way.
By the beginning of our second day in Japan, my children had mastered such essentials as the all-day subway pass, the omnipresent hot and cold drink machines (the better to keep everyone hydrated), the exchange rate, and where to find whimsical snacks (like mushroom-shaped chocolate cookies).
Seeking out a scenic train, we took the subway out of the city towards the mountains and found another temple’s grounds. At the Tenryuji Temple, which dates back to 1339 and is considered one of the most significant Zen temples, we stepped into one of the oldest gardens of its kind. It was designed by the founding abbot and has survived war and multiple fires; intact is a “dry waterfall” into a pond, faced with what later would become a trademark feature of Zen gardens: a flat bridge of three stones.
The pond was filled with a seemingly endless variety of koi, the smallest of them easily a foot in length. Some were white, irregularly spotted with bright orange, some a mottled silvery-gray. They clustered and mouthed silently at the water’s surface, their lower lips pouted into upturned crescents from which undulating barbels trailed. My son informed me that koi can live up to two centuries.
It was far colder than we had expected–and than three of the four of us had packed for. My daughter was kind enough to lend me her sweatshirt.
My younger son had only T-shirts.
“Aren’t you cold?” I asked, not for the first time, in that annoying way mothers have of repeating themselves, especially when there plainly is nothing that can be done productively to address an issue.
“It’s T-shirt weather,” my son decreed.
It was spring and we were at roughly North Carolina’s latitude. Dagnabbit; it was T-shirt weather.
A bamboo forest backlit by sunlight formed a border of luminescent variegated green. Flowering trees were just beginning to bud.
After exploring the temple’s grounds, we walked ahead to our original destination, a scenic railway dubbed the Sagano Romantic Train in the available English literature. At the ticket booth, I discovered I was several yen short of four tickets (again, this is not a euphemism, though the jet leg may have conspired with the rest of my recent life to leave me a few sandwiches short of a picnic). Thus I waited and walked and it was the children who embarked on the scenic railway (嵯峨野観光鉄道), from which they looked down on the Hozugawa River between the Arashiyama and Kameoka mountain ranges.
Much more meandering lay ahead.
The next destination, Nijo Castle, was built in 1603. We arrived outside the castle shortly before closing time. Before walking the grounds, we were ushered inside, where shoes were collected on sectioned shelves. We walked on wide floors which squeaked loudly with each sock-cushioned footfall–a deliberate design, we were informed, in order to warn the castle’s denizens if intruders were to creep in as they slept. Elaborate paintings graced the walls. Above us were ceilings hand-painted with repeating motifs, which varied among sections of the trek.
Evening had arrived, and it was colder still.
I clutched my daughter’s blue sweatshirt over my own three layers and looked up at my son.
“It’s T-shirt weather,” he nodded.
(To be continued…….)